Tuesday, May 26, 2009

June Showers bring October Weddings... and "Girlie Food"

When it comes right down to it, Jessie and I already think of ourselves as married. After all, she did follow me out to Mississippi last June and we've been engaged for almost a year. In fact, we would probably already be married if the logistics of the last twelve months had given us time to actually schedule a ceremony. But now it's finally time to pay the piper, and that means we are awash in invitations, and hotel reservations, and showers, and cakes, and gift registry, etc. Let's also not forget to mention the joy that is navigating all of the bureaucratic trappings of a Catholic wedding. I'm proud to say that we've been crossing obligations off of this formidable list in a pretty orderly manner, one at a time. Our extended planning period has been an enormous blessing.

Although it seemed as though it was forever in the future when we first scheduled it, next weekend we will drive to South Carolina for Jessie's shower. It has mostly been a collaborative effort involving her maid of honor, sister, and mother. I volunteered early on to cook for the occasion if for no other reason than because to go to Jessie's mother's home and not spending the weekend cooking would seem utterly foreign. The main problem with all of this is that I have little experience cooking the sort of "girlie food" one expects at a shower.

Because of my said culinary shortcomings I decided to test-drive a few sufficiently girlie recipes. One is my take on chicken salad, the old standby of garden club meetings and wedding showers. The other is a little more involved, featuring grilled pork tenderloin and what Jessie and I affectionately call "cheeseball." If the chicken salad is something we might expect from Melanie Wilkes, than the tenderloin is straight out of Steel Magnolias. This seems appropriate, because I think there will be a little of both in attendance next Saturday.

As a side note, I learned early-on that my focaccia, the only fail-safe bread that I bake, will simply not do for finger sandwiches. While rich with flavor and pleasing to the eye, it is simply too firm and chewy for such dainty fare. Restaurants and caterers often favor visual appeal to the detriment of practicality, but one can only wonder at the value of tasty chicken salad if the majority of it disgorges onto your plate after the first bite. Both sandwiches, therefore, will rest on thinly sliced French bread from a grocer's bakery.

In the test kitchen: an attractive but messy chicken salad sandwich on focaccia bread.

Chicken Salad with Apples:

My chicken salad could hardly be any easier. The day before making this concoction, grill as many boneless chicken breasts as you think you might need. My favorite preparation is simply to rub them with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Grill for 10 minutes a side on a low flame. Let them reach room temperature after removing from the grill and then refrigerate. When I'm ready to make the chicken salad, I cube the breast meat. Then I cube apples (Granny Smith, McIntosh, or any other fairly tart and firm apple will do) in a ratio of 1 apple to every two large chicken breasts. Round out the salad with green onion, chopped Italian parsely, mayo, and season as needed with paprika and salt and pepper. I would consider adding some chopped pecans or walnuts too, but someone here is not a fan of these. The apple gives the crunch that celery would normally provide, and I think it offers more flavor.

We have yet to come up with a name for my other creation, so "tenderloin á la cheeseball" will just have to do for now.

Guests to our home are familar with what we call cheeseball, our great staple of entertaining. Its origins trace back to May 2008 trip to Napoleon House in the French Quarter. We were within steps of the State Supreme Court building when Jessie's random cravings set upon us. Said cravings are sometimes easily fulfilled (cheese fries, for instance) but often they are not. Like trying to find Thai food along US78 through Northern Alabama. By the time we'd crossed the Napoleon House's threshold, I had only been able to tease out in our familiar question-and-answer routine that Jessie's craving could be for something "sweet, or maybe cheese." Cheese often finds its way to our table, and during this particular trip we'd twice had excellent plates - once at Café Degas and again at Bayona. Jessie spied an offering on the menu promising a spread of "goat cheeses" served with pita and yeast bread, and promptly ordered.

Although this dish has been different on every subsequent visit that we have made to Napoleon House, the basics have remained essentially the same. It consists of a two-inch ball of white cheese, mostly feta, extended by either cream cheese (today) or a soft chèvre (originally) and seasoned with chopped parsley and green onion. The first time we tried it, the cheeseball was very crumbly, but on subsequent visits it has been smooth and spreadable -- likely due to the switch to cream cheese and the addition of a little bit of sour cream -- discoveries we also made on the road to cheeseball nirvana.

OUR cheeseball has evolved over time as well, and what I describe here is the latest iteration. We found that garlic was just too powerful (especially when Microplaned) while green onion did not supply enough punch. Shallots became the ideal in-between. Chèvre yields a greater tartness, but makes the dish more expensive and the flavor difference hardly justifies the cost. Countless times we have had this spread on Carr's water crackers with a nice red wine - our version of the good life on a dime.

The fixin's for cheeseball: feta, parsley, sour cream, cream cheese, shallot.

  • Equal parts crumbled feta and cream cheese (about 3-4 oz. each)
  • chopped parsley to taste
  • approx. 1 tablespoon shallot, finely chopped
  • black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sour cream (what makes it so spreadable!)

Mix together with a fork & put into ramekin or mound into a ball on a plate. Keeps in the refrigerator covered for about a week. Though it never lasts a week.

The inspiration for the sandwich came out of a need to pack some lunch for one of our rambles in the Delta. (You can find good food at restaurants in the Delta, but see above craving and understand the wisdom of toting rations.) I generally dislike deli meat and have long ago mastered the art of slow-grilling roasts for the purpose of making sandwich meat. We had some leftover grilled pork tenderloin in the refrigerator. (Slow grill a tenderloin on low heat, 10-12 minutes a side & let rest before slicing.) By some miracle we also had a little leftover cheeseball. Combining the two on bread yielded something on the order of euphoria. The sandwich below is a direct descendant of this moment.

Making up the tenderloin à la cheeseball sandwich. This is not rocket science, folks!

Tenderloin á la cheeseball sandwiches
  • Spread a generous application of above cheeseball on one side of bread. Use mayonaise on the other half.
  • Place a layer of thinly-sliced English cucumber and thinly-sliced grilled pork tenderloin on sandwich

The secret, of course, is in the cheeseball. Only time will tell, however, if the guests enjoy these sandwiches as much as we do. Stay tuned!