Our friend Mr. F lived with us for a few months when he relocated to Portland from Brooklyn. As a thank you he gave us a couple's cooking class at Sur La Tabla. We were taught a winter menu filled with mushrooms and cheeses. We had such a wonderful time taking the class that we couldn't help but thank him back by making the meal for him and several of our other friends. A tradition was born. That was the year we were married so this is the seventh year we have prepared this winter menu.
Every year we have scheduled the dinner party to fall the weekend before Ash Wednesday. Since we have been together I have continued to add more things to sacrifice. For about 8 years after I turned 21 I religiously gave up alcohol for Lent, just to prove to myself that I had no issues. Then I added meat, and eventually chocolate, to the list of things to deny myself. Then one year after reading enough references pointing to the fact that my agrarian, Catholic ancestors likely had a winter/Lenten diet resembling what we would today consider a vegan diet, I decide to go all the way. Vegan is not easy at all for me. Vegan means I really need to cherish my Carnivale dinner party menu.
Carnivale, or "goodbye to meat" is a week long season that culminates on Shrove Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. I've never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, although Mr. W has. I did spend 5 days in Venice for Carnivale while I was studying in Italy with Ms. H. I can never return to Venice unless it is for Carnivale because there was such a magical spell cast over the city then that I know I'll be disappointed if I return without it. Everyone was dresses impecably in beautiful costumes with elaborate maskes. thise is costumes were mostly in pairs and would promenade around Piazza San Marco through the crowd; whenever two costumed pairs would met they would silently, graciously bow to one another and continue on their stroll. We ended up in the piazza at dusk one night after it had flooded so we had to pick our way through the mist across cafe chairs to get out the other side to return to our hired flat. My memories of that time precious.
There is no delicate way to segue from Venice to the build up to Carnivale 2010. While most of the east coast has been shrouded in snowpocalyps since Groundhog day, we have been enjoying fine weather in the PNW. The problem with fine weather is that when the earth warms up after the frozen temperatures of winter, so do the smells. The house had been smelling foul. I couldn't put my finger on what the offending odor might be. I searched high and low for evidence of recent spraying by the cat in the house, but found nothing for which I could accuse him. I decided it must be the diaper pail and moved it outside. The litter box was empty. I had the windows open in the house for an afternoon to air out any old funk from being shut up all winter. I could find no success in all my hypothesies. And then I slowly realized what it must be.
Something must have died.
I was mortified! I was having a dinner party in two days and once I let the though of a rodent carcass into my head I knew immediately that that was the culprit and I couldn't find the source anywhere in the basement. I even had the Fs over with their dog to sniff out the carcass. I spent an afternoon calling exterminators trying to discover the existence of some high tech gadget that could locate the odor. I was quite literally freaking out. Among the guest list was a woman pregnant with twins. Pregnant women cannot eat a meal with the lingering aroma of death. Nor should anyone else for that matter. I would have to cancel. I couldn't post pone it until the varment was discovered and removed; it would be Lent by then and my chance at steak wrapped around bleu cheese would be gone. So I did what any responsible adult would do. I called my mommy and cried.
Would she mind very much if I borrowed her dining room and moved my entire dinner party to her house? And since I hadn't been able to connect with the middle school babysitter again this year, would she mind watching the three little boys while we ate? She is a saint and reluctantly agreed. She had wanted to take the littlest W for the whole weekend anyway, but we kind of wanted him too. So it was a practical way for us to salvage our dinner party and her to get in some time with her only grandson; her special Valentine. I owe her big time.
We called around to our guests and let them know about the change in venue and everyone was able to join us up in the hills this year. I think it turned out very well considering we had to pack up everything and haul it over the river and through the woods. Good thing we are so familiar with the recipes!
We served crab cakes with lemon aioli, mixed greens with oranges and goat cheese, flank steak stuffed with Rogue River blue cheese and portabello mushrooms and wild mushroom potatoes au gratin, and ended with chocolate hazelnut mousse.
My mother's dining room table decorated with Mardi Gras beads
Extra beads at everyone's place setting; who makes guests earn their beads?