The First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

Quinty and I create our own version of Charlie and Tim’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Hamilton, Montana.

After Quinty and I redeemed our golden tickets to Charles Perry’s Livingston International Dinner Series in Montana last August, we made a pact to start our own version of those sought-after dinners.  After our stint experiencing Tim and Charlie’s note worthy dinner in Livingston, we took the long road home to Hamilton and, along with working on all the relationship issues we had in our lives; we coordinated our plan of attack to offer a series of multiple-course menus in her home with the eclectic Hamilton crowd.  We dreamed about inviting her friends, which included restaurant chefs, a movie producer, folks transplanted from San Francisco, Hamilton scientists, holistic health practitioners and a cast of characters that with a little wine and good food would naturally create a wonderful party.  We imagined the hubbub of gossip about who would be attending each dinner.  We laughed about how surprised the guests would be about the unusual flavor components of each dish. In general, on that ride home, we envisioned in our minds a tradition that would be the talk of the town, like the Charles Perry International dinner series in Livingston, Montana.

Quinty was introduced to me by one of my dearest friends, Karen Varnhagen in the mid 1980’s and I immediatly knew we would become best buds.  Not only did we become fast friends, she was my husband’s first employee and ended up running his Amsterdam operation in the late 90’s-early 2000’s.  She is an avid snow skier (flew off a cornice my husband and friend were negotiating), passionate hiker, best idea woman I know, yoga nut, always is up for a fun adventure, devoted animal lover and is one of the people I would choose to live in a commune with (along with her darling husband Gordon!). 

Charlie started visiting his old friend, Tim Cahill, in Livingston in the early 90s as a means to give his dog Sadie, a huge greyhound-Labrador mix, a chance to run around in the woods and escape her urban LA life.  They met in the early 70s as rock-and-roll journalists at the fledgling Rolling Stone Magazine.  When Rolling Stone birthed Outside Magazine, Tim was one of the two employees on staff that actually liked the outdoors.  He began traveling for Outside Magazine almost full time and thought it was more fun than watching the wild and crazy band members trash their hotel rooms.   Seven adventure books later and with the reputation of being the best known adventure and travel writer around, Tim has settled into an idyllic life in Livingston, Montana with a cohort of artists and writers to pal around with in one of the most pristine parts of the country that I know.  Charlie took a different path.

Charles Perry’s decade at Rolling Stone Magazine was just a detour from his passion for Middle Eastern languages and food.  He studied the former at Princeton and Berkeley and found his love of food during a stint in Lebanon.  Throughout the 60s and 70s, he was roommates with Augustus Owsley Stanley (the king of acid for you younger folks), was a permanent fixture in the Haight and had weekly potlucks with the likes of Alice Waters and Jerry Towers, Jeremiah to you and me.  Before his eighteen-year career as a staff writer for the LA Times’ award winning Food Section, he was a hand-to-mouth freelance writer spending months at a time researching medieval cookery at libraries in Egypt, Syria, Paris, London and Dublin.  His colorful background set the pace for becoming known as the best renowned food historian in the United States.  Since his retirement from the Los Angeles Times in 2008, no moss has grown on his feet; he still travels extensively in the Middle East, is an annual presenter at the Oxford Symposium on food and cooking, started and still participates in the Culinary Historians of Southern California, continues to work on his new book, Partying Like it’s 1399, and cooks authentic international cuisine for his annual Livingston dinner series.

Maybe it was in the stars that Quinty and I lucked into two highly prized seats at the 2010 dinner series.  “Virginia, Quinty and Darla here, I have a great proposition for you”, Quinty interrupted over the speaker phone at one of my girlfriend’s dinner parties.  She explained, “Darla has been trying to get an invite into one of these Charles Perry dinner parties for years and she got her wish along with a few other spots.  You just HAVE to come,” they pleaded. They knew it was short notice but fifty thousand United miles later, history was made in our minds, planting the idea of our own Charles Perry style Hamilton dinner series for August 2011.  

In July, the pre-dinner series prep began as I put on my thinking cap to come up with four five-course menus and Quinty whittled down the guest list as best as she could to ten guests per evening.  Forgetting to count ourselves and Gordon, Quinty’s husband, we quickly changed our game plan to an outdoor evening on her back porch since her dining room table only held ten and then began the prayer vigils for no rain.  “The Wallace’s now want to go to the same dinner as the Watkins’s but if I take them from the Saturday night dinner, the O’Brien’s will not know anyone,” Quinty wailed as she agonized over her guest list, thoughtfully making sure each guest would find other new and interesting individuals to meet along with friends for comfort.  I began wondering if Quinty would be sporting a new wig when she picked me up at the airport due to the hair pulling caused by her well intentioned efforts.  Quinty included Charlie and Tim on our second night and not only did they RSVP yes, but Charlie graciously offered to cook the two following dinners.  I put aside my Spanish and Italian Menu for Charlie’s Azerbaijani and Indian dinners and was thrilled to have the extra help and to learn from him again.  Charlie knows his stuff as far as authenticity goes, whereas I ad lib.  My dinners would be around the theme of Pan Asian and Southwestern, gaining inspiration from my Tahoe cooking class mentors, Marge Poore, Donna Nordin and Joyce Jue, along with my personal biases.  Charlie’s inspiration comes from the ancient cookery manuscripts from the libraries of the Middle East.  I knew we were going to make a great pair and excitement began to stir in my being.

I arrived a few days before my first dinner to do the shopping for all the courses, organize myself and start prepping.  Quinty was busy preparing the linens, planting the last bits of flowers for that added color, setting up the outdoor entertainment area for our cocktail hour and finally, setting the table.  Millie, Quinty’s mother’s good friend, brought the flowers for the table and came back each day to replenish the wilting ones with those fresh from her garden.  Gordon raked, swept and hauled furniture.  Cars were slowing down as they drove by to catch a glimpse of the activity.   I could just imagine what they were saying, “Bob, what’s going on over there?  Look at the gorgeously set table, that inviting sitting area and wow, that well stocked bar.  What lucky guests!”  I was the lucky one though; I was happily in the kitchen creating the taste ambiance for the coming evenings.

The actual day of each dinner event was hectic with guests coming over to help prep while I gave out instructions and worked to keep myself on track. “No, slice the cucumber a bit thinner and more evenly.”, “Get the pan hot-hot before you sear the tuna.”, “Don’t forget the won ton cups in the oven!” I carefully nudged my help. “And Gordon, do not forget to stir the risotto!”, I reminded him.

Slowly, my to-dos were crossed off, the setting sun came through the porch doors and the guests started to arrive.  Each evening started with a short cocktail hour including a themed libation to match the international menu and appetizer to minimize the drinks’ potent effects.  Then Quinty and Gordon invited us to our assigned seats to indulge in the plated four-course dinner.

The first night was Pan Asian and I started with a traditional Asian appetizer that I learned from Joyce Jue, a cookbook writer who worked as a food journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle.  She hand made then fried her pastry for this tasty vegetable treat but to make it easier without compromising the taste, I use won ton wrappers brushed with oil then placed in mini muffin tins.  This version is perfect for a cocktail buffet since the shells hold up well for the vegetable filling.  Joyce’s recipe calls for dried shrimp but I keep mine vegetarian, using a chiffonade of carrot, Jicama and bamboo shoots topped with a dollop of sweet and spicy chili sauce.

After we finished our top hat appetizer served with sake, Quinty stood and rang her dinner bell, “Please everyone, place your cocktail glasses on the table and make your way to your assigned seat.  Our first course is being served.” 

Just click on the hyperlink to go to the recipe page, which gives a bit more history of the dish along with step-by-step instructions:

A Special Pan Asian Menu for the
First Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series

July 30, 2011

With Sake

Top Hats
(Jicama, Bamboo Shoots and Carrots in Won Ton Cups
with Sweet Chili Sauce)

First Course

Green Curry Risotto with Shrimp
and Chinese Long Beans  

Second Course

Ahi Tuna Salad with Pickled Cucumbers
in Ginger Vinaigrette

Entrée

Mandarin Steak on Bed of Pan Fried Noodles

*
Stir Fried Vegetables

Dessert

Cherry Soup with Coconut Sorbet and Fresh Berries

 

Our first course is one of my favorite risottos—my true version of Italian-Asian fusion, or should I correctly say my friend Ivo’s version.  He is the best chef I know that does not cook in a professional kitchen.  Calling him a home cook does not do Ivo justice.  He used to live in my neighborhood and we would eat at each others dinner tables at least once a week, if not more.  We met Ivo and his wife Mira when I was pregnant with Geoff twenty four years ago, so the meals we have eaten together are uncountable.  Mira and Ivo now live in Croatia and I look forward to the opportunity to blog a few menus from their farm home on an island off Split.  Needless to say, this is Ivo’s risotto that I copied.  He does not do recipes but I ask enough questions to be a competent copier.  It is a traditional risotto with a spicy-coconut side sauce consisting of a Thai shrimp curry.  You combine the two with a few handfuls of blanched long beans and some heady Thai basil to make heaven in a bowl.  Make the risotto a bit loose, it is best that way.

Our second course was a salad consisting of a quickly seared piece of pristine sashimi grade Ahi tuna, thinly sliced on a bed of greens with avocado, radishes and toasted almonds in a ginger-soy vinaigrette.  That presentation is perfect, but to add a sweet, sour, and hot twist, I included my mother’s version of pickled cucumbers but made it Asian style by using rice wine vinegar for the pickle, serranos for that heat and cilantro for the finishing touch on this condiment.  I serve this dish as a weeknight entree just the way it is or with a piece of pan-seared salmon in place of the tuna.  It is one of my family’s favorites.

I like doing Wolfgang Puck’s Mandarin steak recipe as my entree with my Pan-Asian menus because it is easy and delicious and can be done ahead of time.  I use Thomas Keller’s version of a quickly pan seared steak that he then pops into the oven to finish cooking.  For my version, I quickly grilled the steaks instead of a pan sear on a hotter-than-hot grill to make the marks, then let the steaks come to room temperature as we served our guests their first courses.  To finish the cooking, I brushed on a homemade Mandarin style barbeque sauce then placed the meat into a 350-degree oven for around fifteen minutes for an evenly pink medium rare.  It is key to let the steaks rest for a few minutes before you serve or slice them.  I sliced mine and placed the perfectly pink strips on a pan-seared noodle cake with mixed stir-fried vegetables.

Pan-fried noodles are an underrated side dish.  They hold their crunch even with a hot sauce, offer a nice starch to any meal, and are perfect in any type of Pan-Asian themed menu.  Since the noodles were one of the many items that missed our master shopping list, we sent Gordon out on a last minute grocery run.  We carefully instructed him to buy Japanese style fresh, thinly sliced noodles from the deli section.  He came back with dried vermicelli style Japanese noodles that were tied in small round bunches.  Quinty and I tried to hide our disappointment but he said that it was all he could find.  We were in Hamilton, Montana.  As any good cook knows, you have to work with what you have so I went for it and boiled up a few bunches, drained them and quickly twirled them into individual cakes before the starch set.  As I was frying one up as a test, I began running a few alternative rice dishes in my head, just in case.  Once the noodle patty finished cooking, I picked up the piping hot cake in my hand and broke it open to see the crunchy outsides displaying the moister noodle in between.  It was a perfect combination of crunch and softness and after a smattering of crunchy salt; it was the best pan fried noodle I have ever made, hands down.  I walked over to Gordon, gave him a big hug for his genius mistake and now only recommend the dried, bundled up Japanese noodles that you can find on any grocery shelf.

                                                                             

The mixed stir-fried vegetable added the needed color on the plate and a bit of sauce to compliment the noodle cake.  You can use a variety of mixed vegetables or just choose one like green beans, asparagus or broccoli.  I liked the variety for this meal because of the color and since we were in the height of summer, why not?  Quickly stir fry these vegetables, adding in the harder ones first then steaming them periodically by pouring in a side sauce of chicken stock, rice wine, soy sauce and various Chinese condiments like black bean-garlic and oyster sauce.  I think a few teaspoons of minced fresh ginger sautéed along with the harder vegetables is always a must.  At the end, pour a bit more of the sauce into the vegetables and finish it off with a few drops of a cornstarch slurry (an equal mixture of cornstarch and water) to create a sauce-like consistency.

“Mom, you have to make the Coconut Sorbet with Cherry Soup for one of the dinners,” Katie thoughtfully suggested as I was struggling to create my menus for each night.  “That rummy coconut ice accents the spiced Bing cherry soup so perfectly,” Katie reminded me.  She was right, and I knew Quinty’s friend’s raspberry bushes would be bursting with ripe fruit which would top this dish with that needed tart/sweet addition.  Coconut is Asian, isn’t it??  Katie won and her favorite dessert became the Asian finish to our first dinner of our first Annual Bitterroot International Dinner Series.

Four dinners later, even I admitted I was a bit pooped.  It was the late nights—so hard to not pour ourselves another glass of wine as we enjoyed reminiscing about the evening into the wee hours of the morning in Quinty’s hammocks off the bedroom deck. Then we had to get up early to start all over again, three more times.  It almost felt like Bill Murray’s version of Ground Hog’s Day with the alarm clock waking us to the same music each morning.  Thank God for Charlie and his help on two of the four dinners.  We barely had time for a walk, a yoga class or cup of coffee at their local hangout; most of my time was spent in the kitchen and Quinty’s in the laundry room and next to the sink washing more wine glasses for that night’s sixteen guests.

 

We are doing it differently next year.  Instead of having four consecutive dinners, we will have a day of rest in between to give us a chance to do a bike ride or swim in the lake. We can do a bit of prep each day and have extra time to relax.  That small adjustment will make the Bitterroot International Dinner Series a complete joy for us.

So now Quinty, it is time to start dreaming about our guests taking a bite of that perfect dish as they smile and say, “Girls—you have outdone yourselves.”

 

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