Monday, October 27, 2014

Slow Food Saskatoon Boreal Feast Event

I didn't post about this earlier because I was in the midst of planning and executing the event. dee Hobsbawn-Smith and I just co-hosted a six course, small plates dinner, matched with wine, to celebrate Michele Genest's new book The Boreal Feast. Michele honoured us with her presence, and we cooked recipes from her book for the event.

I haven't done any catering or hosting of large events for a couple of years. But I knew I wanted this event to happen, and I jumped at the chance to offer both my help and my house as a venue.

My house isn't very big, but we'd hosted up to 45 people before, so I figured 30, for a 'stand-up' dinner, would be manageable.

It wasn't until the Monday before the event, after it had sold out, that I wondered at my own sanity. Why did I think it was a good idea to sell tickets to an event at my house, for 30 people, potentially strangers? It was too late to do anything but wonder and make sure I did my best to make it a success.

And of course, I remembered, it IS Saskatoon after all. In any group of 30 people, I'm bound to know at least a couple of them.

So the menu was this:

Welcome course
Modernist Celery & Olives, Grilled Halloumi, Hakan Sarkaker's Thin Bread, Smoked Saskatchewan Whitefish Spread, Juniper Aioli
Served with dee's Market Sangria

First Plate
Toasted Sunflower Seed Soup, Finnish Pulla Bread
Served with Torreon de Paredes Reserve Chardonnay

Second Plate
Buckwheat Blini, Walnut-Mushroom Filling
Served with Melipal Malbec Rose

Palate Cleanser
Endive, Daikon & Kohlrabi Salad with Walnuts and Cranberries, Cranberry Vinaigrette

Next Plate
Goat sausage with juniper and blueberries, Turnip Gratin
Served with Medeiros Red wine

Sweet Plate
Five cookies (spruce jelly thumbprint cookies, Kolakakor, Smoked labrador tea shortbreads, wild cranberry biscotti, sugar cookies with candied lemon)
One meringue (rosewater and rose petal!)
Coffee, tea

The wine was recommended by Doug Reichel of Fine Wines Saskatchewan, and matched beautifully with the food. dee's son Dailyn, a pastry chef at NOtaBLE in Calgary, fell in love with the Medeiros, so I sent him home with a bottle.

Speaking of Dailyn, thank all the gods that he was there. Reflecting back on the night, I couldn't imagine having pulled it off without him. He was dressing salads, dishing soup, grilling halloumi and goat sausage and washing plates, while dee was plating dishes, orchestrating the courses and doing the last bits of seasoning, and I was playing hostess and telling people where to put their coats, pouring wine, and setting out the cookies and coffee. Had we not had three sets of hands, we either would have just made it work, or eventually someone would have taken pity on us and offered to wash a round of plates. As it was, everyone got to enjoy their evening, and Dailynn had fun grilling and cutting vegetables, since most days he is baking bread.

I'm delighted to now have a copy of The Boreal Feast and I have a couple of favourite recipes from the evening, and others I can't wait to try. I was enamoured with the magical elements of both Harkan Sarkakar's thin bread (it's just seeds, mixed with cornstarch and boiling water, and then you bake it in a low oven for a long time. It makes a sturdy, seedy cracker that I will be making again) and the cream of sunflower seed soup (it starts out as seeds floating in broth, along with onions and roasted garlic, but then you purée it and it turns into this velvety, buttery, silky and comforting cream soup. Amazing!).

I'm also fascinated by the prospects of harvesting spruce tips next spring, and using them as a fresh herb, or drying them for later use. I can just walk out into my front yard and pick them off our massive spruce tree, which I now see as having renewed purpose.

My night was made when a woman who was born in Finland tasted the Pulla bread that originates in Finland. She proclaimed that dee and Dailyn had done it perfectly, and that it brought a tear to her eye, remembering her mother's Pulla. At that moment, I decided it had all been worth it.

And what was the 'it' that had all been worth it? It wasn't too serious. I'd done worse before, like hosted something like that on my own. In that case I wouldn't have been quite as ambitious with the number of courses and what was in them. I'd be doing a lot more make-ahead/serve yourself kind of stuff, rather than plating every course. dee, you amaze me!

Most of my work had to be done on the Saturday, and it involved shopping, baking the thin bread, cranberry biscotti, turnip gratin and sunflower soup (vegetarian and with chicken broth). That didn't seem like much until I realized that it was 2pm and I hadn't finished my shopping, and that the thin bread (for which I was making four batches) required an hour and 20 minutes in the oven.

I quickly revised my plans for a date night with my husband (lucky thing we had gone out on a whim the night before) and advised him that we would be ordering in while I waited for stuff to come out of the oven.

The cooking took place between 4 and 11:30pm on Saturday, which left me time to play league volleyball from 9-noon on Sunday, and then get right back into prep work. Sunday was a long day, but an overall success once people got over their initial discomfort with the close quarters, and began visiting with the other guests.

I did know about a third of the people there, and now I know the rest of them! We got great feedback, Michele got to sell a pile of her books, and we wrapped up the night with Dailyn our saviour doing the king's share of the cleanup (if the king were to do cleanup, that is) and then having a glass of wine or liqueur (Michele's cookbook has several liqueur recipes as well, and I lined up my own collection of fruit liqueurs for her to try) and putting our feet up for a few minutes. We crawled into bed around midnight, and my mind stopped spinning around 1:30.

While it was a gratifying experience all around, I have to say that until my kids are older, I won't be able to do this very often. My parents graciously looked after my kids for the weekend, even though G had a nasty cold and barfed in their car on the way back to the farm. While I enjoyed the unbroken rest that came with not having the boys around, I missed them.

While I couldn't have kept the house clean, accomplished my to-do list and kept my sanity with the kids around, D was not convinced that he should be missing a party where food was happening. So I think next time (because yes, there WILL be a next time. I am compelled to do these kinds of events), maybe we'll find a different venue, so that my family has somewhere to be while I help with the cooking.

In the meantime, we're enjoying our mini-family reunion as well as the leftovers. I have cookies and buckwheat blini galore in the freezer, and some halved lemons are now being preserved for some Moroccan adventures to come. We had sunflower seed soup for lunch, and I spread some of the juniper aioli on some jackfish fillets and broiled them for our dinner, served alongside the turnip gratin (which the kids rejected outright—although D ate two servings of jackfish), and leftover salad fixings. I will be eating pulla bread until it is gone. It is just so good with a bit of butter on it!

But the cooking never stops. In the midst of final cleanups, I turned some slightly old goat milk (the kids drink it, but they were away for the weekend, and it was a little too 'goaty' by the time they returned) into ricotta, and I fried some leftover halloumi for G as a mid-afternoon snack. Tomorrow I will be turning some turkey stock and curly endive that I found at the Farmers' Market into Italian wedding soup, and I have volunteered to bring Halloween cookies for both boys' parties on Friday.

I decided that I should make some kind of decorating cookie in the hopes of using up some of the orange sugar I bought for the boys' birthday cupcakes. I have a pumpkin cookie cutter, so then decided that I should make cookies that contain actual pumpkin. Bless the inter web, someone thought of it before me. So I'll be making pumpkin gingerbread cookies, shaped like pumpkins, for Friday. That's how we roll.

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