When I began to plan my Mom’s surprise 60th birthday party menu, I had trouble keeping the list short. “What about pulled pork sandwiches?” I asked my roommates. “Dulce de leche cupcakes….shrimp romesco….oh no, these look good, too…what about chickpea fritters with honey greek yogurt tzatziki sauce?”
I tossed ideas back and forth for two weeks. It takes a lot to plan a party from the ground up; it’s an added challenge when you have to keep it all a secret. I had to iron out the menu – without it, I had no equipment list, no table set up, no cooking times, and well, no party.
I eventually settled on serving “bites” throughout the night. This avoided a sit down meal and allowed guests to eat and mingle, and eat and mingle some more. I’ve written out the menu below:
- Cheese platter: Great Hill Blue, Brie and Bucherón Goat
- Artichoke dip with multigrain pita chips
- Genoa salami, grapes, green olives
- Iggy’s crostini
- Candied pecans
- Spanish tortilla w/saffron aioli
- Turkey empanadas w/avocado dipping sauce
- Salmon rolls with baby arugula
- Maple glazed pork tenderloin medallions w/whole grain mustard dipping sauce
- Barbecued mango brisket sliders with pickled onions
- Pizza’s: Pesto with mozzarella and cracked black pepper, Classic Margherita with fresh basil
- Mini Red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting
- Pineapple, canteloupe and strawberries
- Peppermint bark with bittersweet and milk chocolate
As per every Rovner party, there were multiple open bottles of wine and beer. Favorites, however, were the El Coto Rioja, Valle Reale Vigne Nuove, and Chateau Ste Michelle Chardonnay.
Despite assisting at Thanksgiving, at Hannukah parties and dinner at my parents’ house over the last few years, this was my first real catering gig. I’ve worked behind the scenes at Firefly’s and at several work events, but this was different. The whole concept of cooking whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to start, was new to me. Dad was the only one I had to convince – a job that wasn’t too tough after I told him I scored a 4# brisket from work.
I neglected to mention here that I spent several nights researching recipes. I filtered through our (ever-growing )collection of ATK cookbooks at the apartment, scanned Serious Eats links and Adam Reid articles in Boston Globe Magazine. I wanted a menu that wouldn’t kill me to pull off, but at the same time, combined a degree of difficulty with a bit of ease. Spanish tortilla and salmon rolls provided little challenge, but doughs and brisket? I’d finally found the balance I was looking for.
The brisket turned out to be my labor of love. I had read two recipes, both that called for slowcooking the brisket. Yet I didn’t have the time or the energy to haul a slowcooker home from the office – plus, that seemed like a bit of a cop out for my debut surprise dinner. I mentioned my angst to my friend Christie at the kitchen, who suggested I just use a large disposable aluminum roasting pan instead. That was the perfect idea – I could brown the brisket in a skillet, transfer it over to the roasting pan, add aromatics and spices, and let it do it’s thing in the oven.
The first slowcooker recipe suggested pureeing chile in adobo and freshly chopped mango in blender, an idea I liked since mangoes are a staple fruit in our house. But I was worried about drowning out the mango flavor with too much heat and spice (an idea I might try in the future would be to concentrate mango juice beforehand). To balance out the flavors, I added the pureed chile/mango mixture along with 1 sliced onion, 1 can of whole plum tomatoes with juice (I crushed them with my hands before adding), 1 cup water, large pinch of cumin, coriander, and cinnamon to the roasting pan. I poked the brisket with a fork and covered the pan with aluminum foil.
After 4 hours at 350, the brisket was not at the fork-tender status I wanted. It had also released a lot of juices into the pan, so I pulled the fork back out and poked holes into the top of the foil to allow some of the liquid to evaporate. I also placed a baking sheet under the pan in case liquid spilled out in the process. —-[I should note that the “barbecued” piece of this recipe turned out to be a bit of a misnomer as all the liquid ended up braising it.]
By midnight, the smells had permeated my apartment and I went in for one last check, hoping that this was finally it. As soon as I uncovered the meat, I breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction. “Yes…” I said to myself, “I did it.” I drained the liquid from the pan (about 2 cups worth) into a fat separator, poured the good stuff back into a saucepan, brought it to a boil and let it simmer for 2-3 hours. The 2 am result: a perfectly thick, sweet and smoky sauce – exactly what I wanted to accompany my babied brisket.
I seem to have gone off on a brisket tangent, but I think it explains how I felt about the entire night. Just as I was shocked I pulled off this menu, my Mom was shocked by the friends that came to surprise her. Dad was proud, Cleo’s tail never ceased to wag, and the crowd made it through the night without singing karaoke at the piano. In my book, it was a great success – one that neither our hearts nor our taste buds will be forgetting any time soon.