In my opinion, a good theme needs 3 things:
- But also the chance to stretch out and try new things in the kitchen
- And lots of room for creativity and playfulness. We’re a group that likes to play with our food!
One last note on theme selection: I confess that we had an ulterior motive. Years ago we made a dish cooked with banana leaves that was OMG amazingly delicious and we’ve been looking for the perfect opportunity to do it again ever since. The time had finally arrived! More on that later.
- Drinks – Ellyn: Autumn Leaves cocktail; Assorted wines
- Appetizer – Kathleen and Karen: Heirloom Tomato Stacks with Sautéed
- Main course – Ilise and Ann: Roasted Lamb Shanks in Oaxacan Red Mole Sauce; Toasted Orzo with Roasted Peppers; Kabocha Squash and Kale Salad with Cranberries
- Dessert – Greg and Dan: Greg’s Apple Tart with Thyme Custard; Platter of leaf-garnished cheeses (Bellavitano Chai Tea; Bellavitano Herbes de Provence; Blue Valdeón)
Whenever we have the enjoyable task of hosting/selecting the theme, in addition to the considerations already mentioned I also have a secondary filter: Does the theme lend itself to an interesting playlist?
Obviously the food comes first, but I do believe that a good playlist adds a lot of life to a party.
In this case the answer was a definite Yes! There are so many great tunes about autumn, leaves, trees, and only a million or so versions of Autumn Leaves, the pop/jazz standard adapted from a French folk song which first became popular in the 1940s.
Let’s start off with a great rendition by Dee Dee Bridgewater and see where the wind blows our leaves from there.
Recipe source: Difford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers
1 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Calvados
1 oz vermouth
¼ oz Strega liqueur
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir all ingredients in a shaker or pitcher with ice, then strain into an old-fashioned glass with fresh ice.
Garnish with an orange peel.
Ellyn's Note: I subbed Genepes des Alpes – a liqueur made from the same alpine herb that flavors the heralded Chartreuse – for the Strega. I also used Orange Bitters instead of regular.
As lovely as it was, the art had to be sacrificed for our hunger pangs and I’m happy to report that everything – leaves included! – was just as delicious as it looked.
Let’s hear from Karen and Kathleen directly, explaining their inspiration and planning process:
We started by thinking about how leaves - literal tree leaves - could be prepared. First we read that Magnus Nilsson gathers last year's partially decayed leaves, and places them on top of cooked vegetables so that the diner digs in to the leaves to reveal the food. See the video. This intrigued us, but lacking a nearby birch and aspen forest and uncertain about how our friends would feel about the presence of potential germs, molds, etc., we gave up that idea.
Then we got excited when we saw that the Japanese make tempura Japanese Maple Leaves. Our experiments however, proved incredibly messy and not worth the effort to perfect (it took us 2 hours to clean our kitchen floor, stove, and counters). Still we were determined to do something with tree leaves, so we called the Chicago Botanic Garden (so that we wouldn’t poison our friends). Our contact there assured us that Birch, Hawthorne, and Linden leaves were edible.
We proceeded to prepare both the Japanese maple leaves from our garden and our neighbor’s birch leaves by sautéing them in a brown butter (just as we crisp sage leaves). This we thought proved satisfactory and tasty. A multicolored heirloom tomato stack seemed to fit the theme and go well with the crisped leaves. We put bacon bits, blue cheese, and basil between the slices, and set the stack on a toasted round of bread to sop up the tomato flavor. We added crisped leaves, currant tomatoes, bacon bits, blue cheese crumbles, and undeveloped seed pods from the Japanese maple as garni.
In the meantime please share in the comments: What’s your favorite classic autumn food? Is it caramel apples and leftover Halloween candy? I get it, that’s the good stuff. Cheers!