Life has been a whirlwind of activity since school started. There have been a series of great events for Palmer folks to get to know Neil, and vice versa. We’ve had a great time getting to know new friends and learning more about our new city. It hasn’t left a ton of time for entertaining, but we knew that as soon as things settled down a bit, we wanted to have our friends over for dinner. These friends are something special. Trent was on the Palmer search committee that interviewed Neil, and the whole family has been so welcoming and kind since before we arrived. If I ever felt overwhelmed or nervous, a quick text from them or reading Kelly’s blog instantly made me feel better. Their kids are around the same ages as ours, and it’s a great mix. They’ve not only had us over for dinner in their home, they also brought us dinner during the week that we moved in. We’ve been looking forward to returning the favor.
First, a quick note about substitutions. Trent shared with me that it makes him a little crazy when I make a ton of substitutions. I get it – I really do. You want to read an honest review of a recipe, but when I substitute sheep’s milk for wheat flour, it totally ruins the effect, am I right? I explained that I grew up and learned to cook in the middle of nowhere. Our only neighbors were Amish, and the grocery store was a good six miles away. There were four kids in our family, all with different activities and schedules, and two working parents. If we didn’t make substitutions, we’d never make anything. Also, if I’m going to go through the trouble of making a meal, I want it to be something that we’ll actually eat. If I didn’t substitute, I’d probably only be on the 200th recipe, give or take, by now. I think it’s a good part of the learning process to go with what you’ve got, or go with what you like. But I completely respect the itch that it causes in Trent’s brain. Maybe when this project is finished, I’ll move on to writing my own recipes, and someone can make their own substitutions for things they don’t like, and I’ll completely lose it. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Neil has a similar itch about following directions and only using what’s listed on the page. But guess who actually gets dinner on the table, night after night? This girl! So he’s had to let it go, and most of the time, he’s pretty happy with the results. I think. Don’t tell me if he’s told you otherwise. I think part of the challenge of feeding a family is using what you’ve got in the time you’ve got to make it, and going with the flow if things don’t go your way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve roasted a chicken for longer than the allotted time in a recipe, because I didn’t want to get us all salmonella poisoning. And for that, he’d better be grateful.
Anyway, Trent was a perfectly gracious dinner guest. I understand the internal conflict over substitutions. I really do. And if Trent just kind of half-assed willy-nillied through his job as a construction manager, there would probably be some pretty lopsided buildings out there. So I’m glad someone is paying attention to the details!
Back to dinner.
We started with Bruschettas with Swiss Chard (from Make it Ahead). I made the bread from scratch (from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day). I used a recipe for their rustic peasant bread, but didn’t have rye flour, and so substituted some more wheat flour instead (sorry, Trent!). I had planned on toasting the bread for the bruschetta in the oven, but I ran out of oven space, even with our two ovens. And so, I got the ol’ toaster, and nobody complained. The swiss chard, garlic, lemon, and parmesan made an amazing first course, which we munched on in the kitchen while I finished up the other dishes. They were so amazing, in fact, that we ate them all before I could take a picture! They were beautiful, too. I was a little too generous with each portion, and so we really only made 5 or 6 instead of the 8 that the recipe should yield, but nobody starved.
The main course also consisted of recipes from Make it Ahead. Slow-roasted Spiced Pork, Baked Farro with Butternut Squash, and Braised Red Cabbage with Pancetta. The pork cooked all day in a slow oven, after being treated to a rub-down of onion, garlic, jalapeño pepper, cumin, chili powder, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar. There was a whole bottle of pinot grigio involved, too. I was a little worried, for a few reasons. First of all, I’d hoped to make this in the crock pot, given my abysmal track record with other Ina roasts in the oven. Also, I didn’t know how all those spices would taste after being in the oven all day. Well. The crock pot was on the fritz, and so into the oven it all went. There was a moment of panic when the roasting pan was lodged into a drawer under the oven, because I crammed too many things into the drawer. Neil tackled that Fort Knox, and conquered it. The spices were just right. I could easily see making this into a pork taco one night, and then turning into a Thai-style stir-fry the next night. It shredded beautifully, and we were all pleased.
The farro with butternut squash was amazing, too, but the sleeper hit was the red cabbage. I don’t serve cabbage to just anyone – it can be an acquired taste. But I knew that our guests love cabbage, and so I forged ahead. There’s just something about the combination of pork, cabbage, and apples that makes a person think that there really is a God, and she must love us very much to make all of these seasonal treats all available at the same time, just begging to be cooked together. I’ve made red cabbage a dozen times before, but this was by far our favorite.
I added the cornbread into the mix, too, just so we’d have something to sop up all of those delicious juices.
Last but not least, we had an apple cake taste-off. I made Ina’s apple spice cake (from Make it Ahead), and the Smitten Kitchen apple cake alongside it. The consensus was that Ina’s had better flavor (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves), but that the Smitten Kitchen version had a better cake-y texture. It was more crumby and lighter, whereas the Ina cake was really more like apple bars. The thing I’ve probably missed the most about living in Minnesota is our annual apple-picking pilgrimage, but each of these recipes also calls for orange juice. I used satsumas, locally grown by a Palmer. I’ve never lived in a place warm enough to grow citrus until now – I think this is going to be fun!
I think any or all of these would be great for a late autumn or early winter dinner, and you could serve a much larger crowd than we did, based on the leftovers that I sent home with our guests and kept in our fridge. You want the weather to be cool enough to have the oven on all day, but that shouldn’t be any problem in most of the country right now! Best of all, we got to enjoy all of this while our kids played together and probably plotted their world domination.