It must have been last Saturday morning that my cell phone sang out its peculiar song and there was my up the hill neighbor, Morty, on the phone. I hadn't done much other than exchange a few neighborly waves with him, and there was one brief conversation, and then he started coming into La Cusinga to eat. And he kept coming back. I liked that.
So when he mentioned a party and a birthday cake and some other things like that I kind of panicked, having heard nothing of the sort from anyone. I knew I had a dinner reservation for some local/regulars that very night, but didn't know much about any birthday cake. It turned out, fortunately, and upon further questioning, that Morty's event was his own birthday party and was for the following Tuesday. In all too familiar form, I just hadn't been apprised of it by the gentleman who had taken the reservation.
Despite Tuesday being a valued day off, one of the few I get in this part of the year, I was happy to be able to host and cook Morty's birthday dinner. It was going to be 13 people, and was going to include a lot of friends, old and new. I like Morty and his recent and frequent appreciation of what I do in the kitchen makes me like him even more. More importantly, this was going to be Morty's 70th! To add to the festivities, he had requested "the" pineapple upside down cake (the one I call, "Not Your Mother's Pineapple Upside Down Cake") as his birthday cake, and he wanted it on the table so that he could serve it. It sounded like a grand idea to me.
On the appointed Tuesday I began the birthday cake by making caramel with butter and raw cane sugar. I had over 30 for dinner and would need three cakes, so I had two sticks of unsalted butter and 2 cups of the sugar in the pan. While the caramel cooked over a low heat I cut the skins from two ripe pineapples, cut them in half lengthwise and cored them. The cored halves got cut into a series of half-moon shaped slices to lay into the, oops, the caramel. I stepped back to the stove, gave the caramel a couple of quick (but careful, this stuff is like napalm) stirs and poured it into the bottom of the cake pans.
While the caramel had been cooking and the pineapples were getting cleaned and cut, I had put the mixing bowl of butter, more cane sugar and organic vanilla on the back of the stove to soften the butter and make it easier to cream. I laid the pineapple slices down into the caramel in as nice a pattern as I could muster and then weighed out the dry ingredients; flour, ground almond, baking powder and a pinch of salt. I was just about ready to put these babies together; cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs and sour cream and fold in the dry mix.
And then there was silence. The lilting Brazilian music coming from my iTunes had stopped, the humming of the refrigerator had stopped, and the every bang of every pot and pan in the dish sink seemed deafening. The power had gone off; not an unexpected nor unusual occurrence, just one particularly ill-timed.
All I could do was keep moving forward with things that required no electricity. I had ordered fresh fish to come in Tuesday so I knew we'd be getting something good for the birthday dinner and sure enough the Dorado (mahimahi for you up there) that came in was perfect, pristine, glistening fresh. I had a bag full of succulently ripe mangos, so it was pretty apparent which direction this was going to go. I would need no electricity to cut fish or make salsa.
I had the second half of a batch of carrot/beet/ginger soup so that was and obvious choice for our first course. I've been so busy I have had trouble keeping up on my backlog of soups, but I had set this one aside; a good one. I season this with plenty of fresh grated ginger, a healthy hit of Thai red curry and then puree it with fresh orange/carrot juice. It is a great zap-pow of a palate opener, and thank goodness it was already pureed.
I had four vegetarians on the books and realized that this was the perfect time to take advantage of the oven being empty. I had planned on Ayote Rellenos as the vegetarian entree and the halved, seeded squashes would need to roast for nearly 40 minutes. The ayote is in the pumpkin family, but is green and colored like a zucchini. The ones I use are a little big bigger than a softball. I cut them down the middle from top to bottom, scoop out their pumpkin-like seeds, drizzle them with olive oil, hit them with sea salt and black pepper and into the oven they go. I'd figure out their stuffing later.
Our weekend had been so busy that I'd had to make an emergency call to Marjorie at Diamante Organico for more produce and I had it all at my fingertips for Morty's big night. Her husband Bolivar had cut fresh palmito (hearts of palm) for me so I sliced that and tossed the thin slices with fresh mandarina juice, strips of roasted sweet red pepper and a fine mince of garlic greens. I finished dressing it with a splash of olive oil, sea salt and several grinds of black pepper; a salad within a salad.
I kept listening for the music to resume and the stand-up refrigerator to resume its annoying vibrations and humming, but nothing. Not yet.
Marjorie had also picked me several small heads of romaine that morning as well as a bag of fresh arugula. Perfect, the crunch of romaine with the pepper of arugula. I would dress it with my not-Caesar (everything but the anchovies) dressing and serve it with wedges of vine-ripe tomatoes drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and just a hit of balsamic. I wanted just one more touch for this party, so I grated some of the fresh goat cheese I get at the Feria from the Mennonites. All of this with a mound of the dressed palmito in front of it? Perfect...
I get two products from Diamante Organico that may be exclusive to me, I don't know, but I haven't seen them anywhere else down here and I love them both. One is mix of braising greens, sometimes nine or ten types; mustards, kales, collards, local greens I don't even know the names of, chois, wild spinach and more. These greens are just lovely to look at and the textures are fascinating to me. The other specialty item is curling strands of Chinese long beans; tender and sweet. These two would be the vegetable accompaniment to the Dorado and yes, mango salsa.
We have been doing a puree of camotes (local white yams) and plantains that has been a favorite during my two years at La Cusinga and I knew its pale yellow color would show well against the bright green of the two chosen vegetables. We cook it just like mashed potatoes, adding the ripe plantains at the end. It gets mashed with milk and butter and just a hit of waht the Ticos call "miel de pulga", the syrup taken and cooked down from fresh sugar cane. The fish goes on top and the salsa goes over fish and puree.
After I had cut the shining filets of Dorado into dinner portions I addressed the sweet smelling mangos. This has been both a great and an early season for them and they were perfectly ripe and sticky to the touch. It has taken me a while, but being down here it became imperative that I learn to cut mangos efficiently, and I believe I have finally figured it out. I trim off the ends, stand them up, and with a sharp paring knife, remove the skin. I then follow the ovate pattern of the seed and cut the flesh away in long chunks. To be honest, I made a mess of many a mango before I finally figured this out.
Once the mango is freed from its stone, it gets diced into salsa size, along with red bell peppers and red onions. The jalapenos I get from Marjorie are quite hot, so one, seeded, stemmed and minced fine was certainly going to be enough. Sea salt was sprinkled over the bright golden and red mix in the bowl and two mandarinas squeezed into the nearly finished salsa. I tossed it all and stuck it in the refrigerator. There would be cilantro added, but not until the end, to keep it fresh and bright.
Then, yes, noise, music; the happy Brazilians were back at it. There was rattling, humming from the refrigerator, and power. I grabbed the mixing bowl of softening butter from the back of the stove where it had been forgotten and latched it onto the Kitchen Aide to cream. Oops, it wasn't going to need much creaming. This butter was nearly melted. I wasn't really sure how that was going to affect my cakes as I am neither a baker nor a scientist. But these babies had to get in the oven, and soon. This cake really benefits from sitting a while before it gets cut.
I "creamed" the nearly melted butter and tapa dulce and added the eggs and a healthy cup and a half of sour cream. The flour/almond mixture got folded into the bowl in batches and the bowl scraped down with a spatula, hoping for the best. The batter seemed a bit looser than usual (go figure) but I was thinking it had to bake anyway, didn't it? I smoothed it over the pineapples and the caramel and praying a little prayer to the kitchen gods, slid the three cakes into the oven. Now it was up to Science and the Universe.
My last major chore was the building of the vegetarian entrees. I had pulled the roasted ayote halves out of the oven when the cakes had gone in and they pierced nicely when prodded with the tip of a knife; done and ready to "rellenar". Because we do both lunch and dinner, there are any number of odds and ends floating around the refrigerators at all times. Generally, and this works well in the vegetarian world, there are little bowls of prepped cooked veggies, rices and who knows what. I always keep a batch of cooked frijoles tiernos (shelling beans) around as a base for vegetarian meals, so I had all I needed.
I sauteed the "basics" to get started. Chopped onion, diced red bell pepper and garlic in olive oil is a good way to start almost anything. The day before we had roasted trays of tomatoes in olive oil and I chopped up five or six and with a bit of their orange roasting oil added them to the "basics" in the pan. Next in went a handful of chopped braising greens for some color. I hit the pan with a half a cup of water to help wilt the greens then added a cup of the cooked frijoles. I tossed the pan to distribute all this goodness and then added a big spoon of some vegetarian rice that the lunch crew had cooked the day before. It was studded with bits of broccoli, cauliflower and kernels of corn and added a great look to the mix. I added a bit more water, turned down the flame and put a cover on it to allow the flavors to come together in private; nearly done. I would heap this into the cooked ayote shells and they would be ready to bake.
Olga had finished the cleaning the greens and the lettuces, the camotes were peeled and coming to a boil and the water for blanching the long beans was nearly ready. The soup was ready, the components of the salad were ready, the fish was cut, the salsa was tossed and the cakes were finally in the oven. I breathed.
Morty and his wife Paula showed up around 4:00 before their guests; he lugging a crate of wines and she trailing behind. He was his usual grinning, shambling self, utterly charming and totally without pretense. It was the first time I had met his wife Paula, who has Emmylou Harris silver hair and a New York accent, quite an interesting combination. I got them someone who could help them ice the wine and told them that their special meal was nearly ready. I walked them up to the top deck and their guests began to arrive.
Along with Morty and Paula's group of 13 there was another group of 11 yoga practitioners and four couples. The time of seating would be tricky if I wanted to avoid having a cattle call and feeding everyone at once. Franco, the leader of the yoga group solved that problem for me by coming down and asking if it would be a problem for them to eat at 7:00. No, not a problem, and, in fact, probably a blessing. The dueces (couples, pairs, twos, for you non-restaurant readers) would be easy, they always are. You can sneak them in and around big groups easily.
I was pretty sure the birthday party would sit just after 6:00 when the sun was well down and we could get the bulk of their service out of the way early.
I got the final details ready; chopping garlic, hauling out the pans and the all important portioning of the desserts in the final moments before the final feeding and cooking frenzy. I pulled out the perfect Dorado portions, put them on sheet pans for roasting and dusted them with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. The mango salsa came out of the refrigerator to receive a handful of chopped cilantro and to come up to room temperature (doesn't take long here). Olga had put the finished puree into a bain-marie (double boiler) and I adjusted the flame to keep it from boiling over. Now I was just nervously pacing.
Then it was 6:05 and Morty's party was filing in. I knew nearly all of them and since they've all eaten with us before they knew just where to go. I let them do their toasts and then hit the table with 13 small bowls of the chilled soup. The server and Olga both wanted to rush a bit, but I wanted to let them take their time so we dressed the greens leisurely, place the tomatoes and hearts of palm, just so, and sprinkled the shredded goat cheese over the top. Nice looking salad.
The dueces filed in, the olive oil went in the hot pans; the greens braised and the long beans sauteed. The fish went into the hot oven and emerged. Everyone got soup and salad and of course, just as the perfectly cooked Dorado came out of the oven, the 11 sat down. I had, oh so cleverly, pre-poured their soups, so as those were served we were able to plate the ten fish and roasted stuffed ayotes for Morty's birthday dinner. The puree had come out a lovely pale yellow color and when the mango salsa went over the fish the palate of colors went from pale to brilliant yellow flecked with red, nestled up against the bright greens of the vegetables. It was a lovely plate.
As usual, all of this flew past. The actual service is so fleeting compared to the time spent prepping it all and there is a certain irony to that. Olga and I did the kitchen dance; me placing the first vegetable (the braised greens) and the fish while she darts around and in front of me with the puree and the long beans. I salsa and she pulls the finished dishes from the counter. The plates get wiped and are suddenly arrayed in the service window
It seemed like only seconds before I was straightening the flowers around Morty's birthday cake and scooping the accompanying mango ice cream into the bowls. The yoga group was chowing their entrees and all the dueces had been fed. The cake went out to the singing friends at the table and I could see Morty happily serving up the fat slices of the upside down cake. I love this part; the smiles, the laughter, the empty plates and the air of satisfaction, satiation and peace.
I visited the tables, as I do each night after the entrees go out, and basked in the appreciation of our labors. We had worked hard and it was, as it always is to me, worth it.
Morty was presiding at his table and glowing. The guests were murmuring and smiling in a food-induced semi-coma. This is the way it should be and I was so happy to have been able to have my part in it. Happy Birthday, Morty.