First, full disclosure: The beautifully garnished platters of food you see here were not created by me. They were created by my friends Roger and Lisa, who handily won an appetizer challenge at a party I attended this weekend. There are no photos of my entry. Because if there was a dead last place, that's where my entry would have been. It was a failure of epic proportions.
Here's the background: Every year, on the fourth of July weekend, we attend a pig roast hosted by a large and rowdy Filipino family.I've been going to this party for almost 20 years. My husband first took me when we were just dating. I had such a good time, and loved this family so much, that I married him, just so I could get to them. So anyway, there's always lots of great food--excellent Filipino fare like pancit (something I haven't been brave enough to try to make), and this vegetable thing with bitter melon and some kind of leaves off these trees Uncle grows, and these amazing eggrolls, and sometimes grilled squid, and of course, The Pig.
But this isn't about The Pig. This is about The Appetizers. So anyway, I get an email from Cleo, one of the Pinos who hosts the party, about three weeks ago. Cleo has decided to throw out an appetizer challenge. The participants will all be assigned an herb, and we're to create an amuse bouche using the herbs. We should have about 50 bites total, and we'll be judged on presentation, use of herb, and taste. About 10 of us signed on.
Now, to understand this challenge, you have to understand two things: in this group of family and friends, there are some amazing cooks, and we all love to talk smack. Cleo assigned our herbs. I got thyme, which pleased me since my thyme is doing so well this summer and since it's such a versatile herb. I knew I'd have to do something easy and quick that I could mostly make ahead, since I'd be arriving at the party sort of late. I settled on some sort of sorbet, and the smack-talking emails started flying.
I played around with my recipe. First I made a simple syrup--into about 2 cups of water, I put the zest of one lemon, about a quarter cup of sugar, and a big handful of thyme. I brought all that to a boil to dissolve the sugar and then let it steep for a while--until it was cool enough to strain. I poured the strained syrup into the little plastic cups that came with my son's snow-cone maker and froze it. Then I used said snow-cone maker to make a lemon-thyme granita, which I served in little scooped out strawberries to my sisters and friends as a practice run. It was good, but the granita melted too quickly and was a little...well, it needed something.
In my second attempt, I made a champagne sorbet with thyme (see recipe below). I meant to freeze it in my little ice cream maker, but it stopped working, so I put it in a shallow glass baking dish in the freezer and scraped it periodically with a fork. The texture wasn't as smooth as I wanted, but it tasted fabulous. I figured I had a winner--by the time the contest rolled around, everybody would have been drinking all day by the pool in the hot sun, and my sorbet would be sheer perfection. I imagined the praise, the adoration, the loving kisses of my peers. I packed my sorbet in ice, stuffed it in a cooler, and set off.
When I arrived at the party, I went to check on my rivals. While everybody else lounged by the pool, my main rivals, Roger, Gloria, and Lisa, were slaving away over their creations. Roger (rosemary) was doing something really fussy with vegetables and a paring knife. Gloria (cilantro) was chopping a mountain of vegetables. Lisa (dill) was fretting over a sauce that hadn't thickened properly. I talked some trash and went to prepare my strawberries poolside, slicing off the bottoms so they'd sit up pretty and scooping out the insides with a tiny melon baller. My four-year old daughter happily ate the parts I wasn't using, and I made smug comments about how party food should be simple and easily prepared, so the cook could enjoy the party.
When I saw Lisa arranging lobster shells and fresh flowers into an arch over the platter for her lobster bites in a champagne dill sauce, I started to feel like a girl who shows up at a black-tie event in cut-off jeans. But I put my strawberries on a chilled silver platter and scooped little bites of sorbet into each one. They looked pretty, but plain, and I began to regret my "no fussy garnish" rule. The contest was set to begin at 4, so I put my platter back in the freezer and waited. And waited. And waited. None of the other participants was ready except for Roger, the consummate professional. And one look at his platter, and I knew he'd won on the strength of his garnish alone. Roger and I began making noises about counting points off for lateness, and the other participants trickled in.
There was Michelle's lovely if uninspired crackers with tomatoes and chives. There was some chick I didn't know and her cherry tomatoes stuffed with horseradish cream cheese and parsley.
Some guy had some really tasty spicy beef tips with basil.
David brought out a tray of raspberry lemonade with mint--delicious.
I knew I didn't have a prayer. But I made a little speech--first I asked Roger and Gloria and Lisa where they'd been all afternoon while the rest of us lounged by the pool. Then I talked about seasonally appropriate foods and simplicity and some other bullshit. Then I dramatically went to get my platter.
Which was full of pretty little strawberries, sitting in a puddle of slightly viscous, piss-colored liquid. My lovely sorbet had completely and utterly melted. I guess the freezer wasn't cold enough, or the door kept getting opened, or what, but my amuse bouche wasn't very amusing. I had to strike myself from the competition and eat some major crow.
But it didn't really matter. The other appetizers were all delicious, and Roger and Lisa tied for a win, and in the end, we were all well-fed. We scooped the icy cold strawberries into a bowl and poured the syrup over them and everybody ate them all up. That's the thing about cooking--sometimes, shit happens. So many people I know are afraid to try new recipes, or to cook for a crowd, or to throw parties. But it's just food--it's meant to be fun. And next time I make that champagne sorbet, I'll make sure it's frozen before I brag about it.
- 1 bottle champagne--I used a cheap bottle of Asti Spumonti someone left at my house. Not my first choice to drink, but perfect for mimosas and sorbets.
- 1/4 cup sugar
- zest and juice of one lemon
- handful of thyme (you could also use other herbs--I'm thinking lemon balm or basil or maybe rosemary would be good.)
Combine all ingredients except lemon juice and bring to a boil--you must boil the alcohol out of the champagne so it'll freeze. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat. Let the mixture steep for a while at room temperature, until it's cool. Stir in the lemon juice and eat the lemon zest--it's so yummy, sort of candied, and as the cook, you get to eat all of it without sharing. Or I guess you could save it and chop it and garnish the sorbet with it, if you're generous. But don't throw it out--it's really yummy. Strain the mixture to remove all the solids and chill it. Once it's cold, use an ice cream freezer to freeze it--or if you don't have one, pour it into a shallow glass pan and place it in the freezer. Use a fork to periodically scrape the mixture into slushiness. And that's it--serve little scoops of it in hollowed out strawberries, or just serve it in a bowl.
I don't have Lisa's recipe, but if anybody wants it, I'm sure she'll share, as all generous and good-hearted cooks will. But here's my stab at Roger's:
Roger's Rosemary Bacon Wrapped Shrimp
So I know most of us can't create the precious little flowers from radishes and tomatoes and spring onions that made Roger's dish a winner, but really, the dish itself would have won on the basis of flavor alone. And it was so simple--it's barely a recipe.
- Cut strips of bacon in half and cook them until they're just translucent but not yet crispy.
- Sprinkle peeled, raw shrimp with finely chopped fresh rosemary.
- Wrap shrimp in partially cooked bacon and secure with soaked wooden skewers. Roger did his on small ones for presentation, but you could do a bunch on one skewer and then slide them off to serve.
- Sprinkle more chopped rosemary over skewered bacon wrapped shrimp and grill until just done. And that's it--delicious, even without the fancy garnish. Here's to you Roger!