Monday, April 8, 2013

Memento Taste Picnic!

After what seems like ages (but was actually nearly 6 months, not including our Dim Sum get together), Memento returned tonight for it's 4th season, hosted by Dan and I. The past couple years, we've included a guest slot, but after losing Gerald and Robyn to warmer locales, we had some decisions to make. Although we've loved having friends get to experience Memento, we collectively decided we'd prefer the experience with the same group for the full season. To that end, we found some new members in the form of Linda & Nancy, and Lizzie & Bart! Without revealing too much, I'll start off by saying they blew us away on their inaugural dinner as full-fledged Memento members. Our theme for tonight's indulgences was a Taste Picnic - with each couple being given (secretly) one of the 6 tastes to use as the inspiration for their dish (Salty/Sweet/Sour/Bitter/Umami/Spicy), along with the overall 'picnic' theme.

Before we dug into the meal, we played a little game inspired by Timothy Ferriss' The 4-Hour Chef.  I made 6 bottles of water, each infused with a "pure taste".  We tasted each one together, and tried to figure out what it was, and experience it in isolation.  I found it most interesting where on my tongue I tasted each.  The waters were created using sugar, salt, citric acid, msg, tonic water (quinine), and the pith and seeds of jalapenos.  The results were fun and helped me enjoy the meal with those pure taste experience in mind.


As is tradition, the hosts (Dan and I) started the meal off with an appetizer. On our first anniversary, many years ago, we had a picnic on the floor of our apartment, enjoying lots of little nibbly things like crackers and cheese and lox. It continues as a favorite snack for us. In addition, we got the taste SALTY, so salty crackers, salted cheese, and salt cured lox all fit the bill. So we decided to honor that with homemade cheeses, crackers and trout lox. I made a simple farmers cheese, then seasoned it with black lava salt before pressing it, salting it over the course of several days (to draw out moisture) and finally waxing it. That cheese became the 'Parmesan' I used to make Ina Garten's Parmesan & Thyme crackers. While in Hawai`i recently, I made salt from the ocean water, and brought that back to use in another farmer's cheese (this time only lightly salted and made the day of the party for maximum freshness). I also used that salt in the wheat/sesame/chia seed crackers that accompanied it. That pairing was joined by the homemade dill trout lox, and topped with some almonds and black pepper.


To go with it, Dan created a Salted Thyme Lemonade, made from a thyme simple syrup he made, fresh squeezed lemons, water, and salt.  And we offered homemade amaretto to anyone who wanted to spike it.


Marcy and James came up next with UMAMI - the savory experience common to mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, parmesan cheese, anchovies, soy sauce, etc.  They created a roasted tomato stuffed with mushrooms and breadcrumbs and parmesan and all sorts of goodness.  It was rich and distinctly savory, while still tasting so fresh from the tomato.


Along with it they served a green sun tea... continuing the picnic theme.


Next up were Anna and Jason, who, after battling my crappy grill, came in with a salad course inspired by the taste SWEET, served on sticks (making it great picnic fare).  Red peppers and pineapple shared the plate with deliciously tender lamb, sweet grilled fennel (which transforms completely when grilled), croutons, and cheese... plus some greens topped with preserved citrus peels and a grilled Myer lemon slice (since Myer are a sweeter version of lemons).


 Next at bat were our total newbies - Linda and Nancy.  To tease our taste buds while they finished their main component, they brought out these beautiful and wonderfully SPICY "poppers" - halved jalapenos stuffed with spicy sausage.  I wasn't the only one who could've eaten a dozen of these.


And with the heat just beginning to fade from our tongues, we were presented with a homemade ravioli, on which asparagus was resting, sprinkled with bacon.  And what type of ravioli?  Egg yolk!  I'd never had this (or even heard of it) and will now be seeking it out and trying to reproduce it myself.  Since fresh pasta takes only a brief time to cook, this leaves the egg yolk perfectly runny when you cut into the pillow.  The word "Yumazing" came to mind.


The sausage and peppers popper turned out to predict the next course - a hearty and decidedly picnic-y homemade sausage topped with my two favorite hot dog toppings:  mustard and sauerkraut!  It's as if Carolyn and David have been reading my diary.  And, of course, the mustard and kraut were both homemade, both wonderfully highlighting the SOUR taste of vinegar.  Unfortunately, the multi-week long fermented kraut went rancid on them, but they discovered a quick kraut recipe that was excellent.  Thanks Guy Fieri! 


Joining their sour sauerkraut dog was a sour beer - which I'd never heard of but really enjoyed.


 Last, but definitely not least, Lizze and Bart puzzled us when a cocktail was delivered in a picnic friendly plastic glass, then misted with a mystery ingredient.  We pondered on that, huffing the drink to try to get some hint of what it was, and the smell was reminiscent of bandaids, oddly enough.  Then out came boxes of animal crackers, followed by those little ice cream cups you eat with a wooden spoon (and of course, the spoons, too).  We all sat looking at them quizzically before Lizzie revealed the amazing secret:  The animal crackers were homemade, and featured orange peel and cardamom, while the ice cream was replaced with a homemade burnt caramel with chocolate chips.  The cocktail was courtesy of Bart's bartender friend - a Blood and Sand that used blood orange juice with a very peaty Scotch for a delicious pairing with dessert.  I had made the assumption that Lizzie would go with bittersweet chocolate to incorporate the BITTER taste assigned, but (in her words) that would've been too easy. 

Being a total dessert whore, plus a huge fan of playful presentation, I adored Lizzie & Bart's dish.  It conjured childhood memories of sack lunches and field trip day picnics, while being decidedly grown up and showcasing bitter in ways I never would've guessed.

All the newbies really blew us 'veterans' away with their dishes.  Next round, I know I better "bring it".

And speaking of next time, Marcy & James revealed we'll be putting Memento on a Diet - with each course limited to a strict calorie and fat content restriction.  And Dan and I will be starting the planning with a low-cal, low-fat dessert.  That's definitely going to test our skills!

Parmesan and Thyme Cracker recipe from  Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: Fabulous Flavor from Simple Ingredients

Farmer's Cheese and Wheat Cracker recipes from Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects

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