Gra, SJ

A few months ago, I learned that my good friend Joe from college was living in Chicago.  He had come to town after finishing the Jesuit novitiate and starting seminary at Loyola, and when we met up shortly before the holidays, we hadn’t seen each other in at least a year (probably more, now that I think about it).  In catching up, it was discovered/established that we both enjoy as much time as possible in the kitchen, and subsequently agreed upon that we should get together and cook soon.  

Once dinner-week arrived, Joe and I tried to nail down some kind of a menu.  Joe invited his entire residence to join us for dinner, and we ended up getting about 12 signups in addition to the news that our pals and newlyweds Jordan and Megan would be joining us.  So this was… bigger than a standard dinner party, to say the least.  Though most of what I had already mentally flagged for menu candidacy was relatively easy to throw together, if not something I had already done in some incarnation or another, it became even clearer once we had our numbers that this might not be a good time to bust out the newest scheme from the Frankengra Idea Station that is my kitchen these days.  I needed dishes whose components I knew well enough to delegate, but ones that also worked together in a (somewhat) cohesive flavor scheme.
So we had:
  • The tried and tested prosciutto-wrapped whitefish.  (“Wrapped in prosciutto and looking elegant,” by the way, is quite possibly the best headline ever.  And, really, a state of being which, once achieved, should never be abandoned, no?)
  • Herb salad – that is, mixed greens with heaps of fresh basil & parsley – with honey balsamic vinaigrette and shaved parmigiano
  • Penne with roasted butternut squash and homemade ricotta
  • Lemon-roasted red potatoes
The first two items here are pretty straightforward: Bittman’s recipe is totally genius and so perfect on its own, I wouldn’t even know where to start if someone forced me to alter it.  And you are le smart; you can imagine what-all goes into that salad. The other two, however, are things that I’m happy to share here, though I still can’t claim full credit for either.
The penne was not only familiar but remains one of the crazy-easiest fall/winter pasta dishes to make, and the fun was really in showing people, once again, that YES, you can make ricotta all. By. Yourself.  FO RELLY RELL.  Joe’s friend RJ was really, really… really excited to be making cheese.  Enthusiastic stirring and staring.  Just what you want in a helper.
(Also, some technical notes about the ricotta:  We did the tested and proven 10 minute drain [always a pleasure], AND we handled the whole thing WITHOUT a thermometer of any kind.  [Actually, I did this on Christmas Eve as well but I think when I wove that tale I might still have been looped on French 75s and not wholly recalling of every last holiday glory.]  What you’re looking for is the telltale mini-curds that start to float to the top of the milk… Obviously, they’re pretty easy to recognize once you’ve made the cheese once or twice with a thermometer.  So I guess what I’m saying is:  Go textbook, then you can go rogue.)
For the butternut squash, we just lathered it up with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and let it turn to happy squashy goodness in the oven at 350… I think this was about an hour, but don’t quote me on that.  What you want is to be able to poke the squash with a fork and meet with little to no resistance all the way through.  Then, when you’re making this for 15 people, you’re going to grab an enormous steel lunch-lady-style mixing bowl, dump your 2 pounds of drained pasta in, and add the bite-size pieces of squash as you scoop them out with a spoon (or, if you’re worth your lunch-lady salt, a melon baller).  Once that’s all done, you throw the pile of ricotta on top, being careful to scrape down the cheesecloth because you want ALL that cheese, then combine with enthusiasm.  Salt and pepper to taste, add nutmeg if you’ve got it, and fresh parsley if you’ve got that.  For as simple as this one was, I think it was sort of the sleeper hit of the dinner.  Maybe the boys were impressed by the ho-made cheese, maybe everybody loves a nice squash.
The potatoes weren’t on my original list of ideas for the dinner, actually.  Earlier in the day, over a (mildly hung over) lunch with Anna and Jered (of Chocolat Brown… link coming soon, I hope!), I presented some of my more vexing menu ideas, one of which was roasted winter vegetables.  Now, don’t get me wrong – winter vegetables of any kind, and in any form are a delicious treasure – but Joe was already completely sold on the penne & butternut squash, and I also felt like the consistency and weight of the vegetables would sort of muscle up to the relatively light fish dish, and probably win.  In response to this problem, Jered, in his infinite wisdom, simply said, “You know, you don’t have to wow them with root vegetables.”  (Somehow I feel like that’s something I could get tattooed on my arm and not regret it for at least 20 years or so.  That’s saying something for an offhand food quote, don’t you think?)  We then talked about some other starchy side that wouldn’t compete with the penne OR the fish, and I remembered some amazing lemony roasted potatoes I had had from a dinner catered by Black Rooster (aka Jerry’s Sandwiches, wouldn’tcha know) and Jered came up with something that turned into this little ditty…
We took about 3 pounds of little baby red potatoes and scrubbed ’em up real pretty.  (Color is unimportant here, really; I just liked the idea of red potatoes contrasting with the white and pink and green fish and the pretty green salad.  Use whatever you want – just make sure you cook them for long enough so that they’re soft – you want the bite to come from the lemons, not an underdone potato.) Cut them in half and put them in a big lovely (again, lunch-lady-style; I mean, this was, for all intents and purposes, an industrial kitchen) roasting pan.  Then made a little sauce from olive oil, the juice of one lemon, salt, and LOTS of pepper.  Poured it on, massaged the taters to make sure everyone was good and slick, and roasted in the oven for about an hour.  Once they were out, added an extra dimension of lemony-roasty goodness and threw together a “dressing” of:  the juice of a(nother) lemon, the zest of that lemon, a bit more salt & pepper, some fresh parsley, and a little bit more olive oil (not much; they were already nicely coated and what you don’t want is to “water,” or, I guess, oil down the dressing so much that the lemon is undone).  This dressing idea was really what set it off for me. I loved the first incarnation of those lemony potatoes I tasted once upon a time, but the dressing for this version (or any sort of condiment that’s custom-made for a dish) was this really lovely kind of actualizing factor – like, “Yes, sweetheart, this is lemon you’re tasting.”
For this dinner, presentation was… less of a priority than I’d normally try to make it.  When you’ve got a huge tray of potatoes ready and you’re still waiting for fish to cook through, you use that steam table and you like it.  But at a certain point I sort of gave up the OCD ghost and saw that folks were really enjoying the food and each other’s company.  We ate and drank wine and talked about Facebook (“Jesus of Nazareth has invited you to play Texas Hold ‘Em…”), translating American slang into ancient Greek, rotund Chicago cops with quotas and a whole lotta time, and the feeling that one is being casually watched by one’s neighbors (or, in the case of my old apartment, actively watched by no less than 30% of total CTA ridership).
Hopefully we’ll do another one of these dinner parties again soon.  (I’ll work on my timing, too, so that we’re not eating a full hour later than promised… oops.)
Meanwhile, come to Soup & Bread this Wednesday!  Jack is cooking!


  1. Jeanelle — a lovely recounting of the evening. You’d be happy (disappointed?) to hear that the gutted, overticketed mini SUV across the street was towed just a few days after our dinner…[wistful tear and sniffle].

  2. oh sad! I’m glad we got to see it before its departure… and your police officer impression to the dulcet tones of “baby elephant walk” will not soon be forgotten. 😀

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