AT THE TABLE

Columnist served as guest chef for special dinner at the Zephyr

The Marquette Monthly’s At The Table columnist Katherine Larson served as the guest chef in March for the Zephyr Wine Bar and Cafe’s Guest Chef Dinner series. She made good use of the kitchen’s equipment, including the large stove. (Photos by Joseph Zyble)

 

By Katherine Larson
It started one night at Zephyr Wine Bar. As we happily finished the fifth course of one of Zephyr’s signature guest chef dinners, owner Daniel Rutz asked for suggestions for future guest chefs. Flown with good food and good wine, I wondered: how about me?
And, to my astonishment, delight, and trepidation, it became me. On two frigid nights in March, with the invaluable help of my husband Bruce Larson and my sister Jacqueline Wender, I had the privilege of serving a five-course meal to Zephyr’s enthusiastic patrons.
I’ll share with you, dear readers, my planning and preparation process, because there are lessons to be learned from tackling any unusually intimidating cooking challenge. Whether it’s preparing food for a restaurant full of people, hosting a quantity of ill-assorted relatives, or trying to impress a boss and her husband in a make-or-break context, the same set of emotions comes into play. So does the need to reduce the stress level to a point where one can function.
I knew right from the get-go what I wanted to accomplish: a five-course meal that would showcase the best of what the Upper Peninsula has to offer. I’m passionate about eating locally—local food is fresher, tastier, and more nutritious; local transportation uses far less fossil fuel; local purchasing contributes far more to the local economy. In short, local eating builds a strong community, and I’m all for it.
So this meal had to reflect that passion. But it was going to be offered in early March, in what turned out to be winter’s fiercest grip, and a mouthwatering array of dewy fresh-picked vegetables was just not going to happen. I turned, therefore, to root cellars and preserves, the two traditional staples of winter eating in snowy climes.
Thus, Lessons No. 1 and 2: go unashamedly for what inspires you; but be realistic about it. We all cook better when we’re cooking food we love. We also all cook better when, instead of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, we turn the sow’s ear into a silky braise.
I also knew, right from the start, that the quantities involved would pose a challenge. Day in and day out, I typically cook for just two. On special occasions I might feed eight or even a dozen. But 80? No. So whatever I prepared would have to be manageable on a large-scale basis.
Yet even if my challenge hadn’t been scale—if my intimidating meal had been, say, the fractious in-laws or the scary boss—I knew (and here’s Lesson No. 3) that the more I could prepare ahead of time, the better the result.
There’s the comfort factor: there you are, in the quiet of a kitchen, communing peaceably with the pots and pans and no impatient diners on the other side of the door. There’s time to let flavors develop; there’s time to reduce stress with a soothing cup of tea; there’s time to recover from any mishaps. Last-minute cookery can be a high-wire act, and when dinner really matters I want a safety net.
So I started to think out my plans. One dish—it turned out to be the second course—was a no-brainer: chard tart is a completely reliable part of my repertoire. It’s flexible; it expands easily to feed crowds; it’s utterly delicious; and it actually tastes better if you make it in the morning to serve in the evening. There’s no fresh U.P.-grown chard available in March, of course, but chard purchased in early autumn tastes delectable in March if back in autumn it was finely chopped, sauteed with onion, garlic, and fresh basil, and then frozen. It’s also a whole lot easier, on the day of the dinner, to whip the tart into shape if you can just grab a bag of the stuff from the freezer.
Chard tart, good as it is, can be even better with a piquant garnish. As I wandered the Downtown Marquette Farmers Marquette last fall with the Zephyr dinner on my mind, I passed Dukes Farm and spotted a crate of gorgeous late-season sweet peppers and bags of the handsomest shallots I’ve ever seen. I nabbed them, along with a lot of garlic, and brought them home to pickle. Luscious! And their vibrant colors provided the perfect counterpoint to the glossy green chard. Still early October, and one of the five courses was well in hand: pickle all set, and chard ready to go.
Another dish—it ended up as the third course—was also easy to select based on its success with guests on previous special occasions. It involves an assortment of braised carrots, parsnips, and shallots, all served with a puree of potatoes and parsley root plus a mound of tiny beluga lentils; everything gets napped with a rich buttery red wine sauce.
Root vegetables are essential to winter cooking, but let’s be honest: they can become a bit of a bore. It was important, therefore, to build interest via the vegetables themselves, via the complexity of the sauce, and via the garnish of a zesty garlic-parsley gremolata.
The U.P. is lucky to abound in sources of superb root vegetables. Mighty Soil Farm’s little orange carrots retained extraordinary flavor and texture, while Virgin Earth Farm’s bigger yellow carrots imparted their signature sweetness to the sauce. [Virgin Earth’s Gregg Wixtrom is my husband’s cousin.] More shallots from Dukes Farm played a starring role here too, as did Virgin Earth’s parsnips and potatoes.
The most unusual ingredient, and—flashing forward—the one that occasioned the most oohs and aahs from Zephyr’s dinner guests, was parsley root. It looks a bit like a small parsnip, but the flavor is totally different: fresh and vibrant, it transforms an otherwise-ordinary potato mash into something extraordinary. As far as I know, Virgin Earth is the only source of parsley root in the area; in September or October, make a beeline there and grab some for yourself.
You could make this dish with regular lentils, I suppose, but I much prefer the tiny black beluga lentils from the Marquette Food Co-op. Unlike the usual brown mush, they sit perkily on the plate; color, texture, and flavor all appeal.
I knew this would work for vegetarians and those who enjoy an occasional meatless meal, but I also knew that some guests would feel cheated if deprived of meat. Fortunately, we are privileged in this area to have Case Country Farm, source of the best pork I have ever eaten in my life. A nice tangle of pulled pork on the plate would fit well with the other ingredients.
And, again, all this could be made ahead. Indeed, it all had to be made ahead. The pork had to be braised in the slow-cooker and then pulled. The wine sauce had to steep for hours. The root vegetables needed that wine sauce to braise in. While preparations took over a week of sustained effort, only the potato-parsley root puree would need to be made just before dinner.

The main dish was braised pork, beluga lentils, root vegetables and potato-parsley root puree.

Two courses down, three to go. Remembering Lesson No. 1, I opted to start the meal with mushroom soup—I love soups of all kinds, and I adore mushrooms. But not a creamy mushroom soup that might curdle or cloy. Instead, I took advantage of the array of dried and fresh wild mushrooms available from Shiitake Creek Mushroom Company, another market vendor, to make an extraordinarily rich broth from dried chanterelles, shiitakes, hens-of-the-woods, lion’s manes, and oyster mushrooms. Soy sauce, dry sherry, and fresh ginger added welcome undertones, as did carrots and parsnips and onions, all of which I roasted to the point of caramelization before putting them in to steep. The result, strained, was a clear broth that vibrated with flavor.
Yet again, this not only could but had to be made ahead of time. All that was needed on the night of the dinner was to add chopped fresh lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms to poach in the broth, plus a garnish of minced fresh ginger and green onions.
Clearly we had to include a salad as the fourth course. Here, my sister proved invaluable. She lives in northern California, and she knows her salads inside and out. By now, we were emailing back and forth with considerable regularity, bouncing ideas off one another, and I had my best idea of all: invite Jacqueline to come and take charge of the salad. Bless her heart, she came.
What she prepared was a work of art. She dressed a tangle of baby arugula in lemon vinaigrette. (We’d hoped for local greens, and Mighty Soil Farm went so far as to plant some mâche in one of their tunnels for the purpose, but alas February’s near-record snowfalls smashed that hope. If the dinner had been in January or May, the greens would have been local.) She tossed Mighty Soil’s baby beets, roasted, in that same vinaigrette. She placed a delicate pool of horseradish crème fraîche on the plate, and balanced a slice of smoked lake trout on it. And she topped off each plate with a couple of herbed puff pastry straws.
This course was a triumph. It was also possible only because Jacqueline was able to dedicate herself to concentrating with laser-like focus on salad plating while husband Bruce and I ladled out the other dishes. Which leads me to Lesson No. 4: if trustworthy help is available, embrace it.
Dessert… Regular readers of this column may have noticed a relative dearth of articles about dessert. This is no accident; I’m not a big fan of sweets, and my cooking reflects that. I realize, however, that I’m in a distinct minority in this regard, and the Zephyr diners would have been indignant if I’d followed my natural inclination. Lesson No. 5: reach out to meet your guests where they are. When we cook we engage in one of the oldest and deepest ways of human sharing, and true hospitality demands an awareness of others’ yearnings.
Oh how we experimented, and oh how we struggled! Special kudos to Bruce for heroically guiding us through version after discarded version. Special kudos to daughter Sarah and son-in-law Nick for spending a good chunk of Thanksgiving weekend lending their aid. Finally, though, we fought our way through to success.
The end product involved a base of a wild raspberry coulis, starting with raspberries picked by Bruce and his buddy Ray Mattson but then eked out with more from Hannah’s Garden as it became clear just how many we’d need. Piped over that was a free-form almond cream (ground toasted almonds enhanced by a whiff of Amaretto folded into whipped cream) and more raspberry coulis.
A garnish of crystallized ginger (preserved last fall, when the available ginger is at its freshest and juiciest) plus some tiny knobs of chocolate-covered ginger rounded off the feast. Just as the fresh ginger in the soup course offered diners a bit of tranquility as they settled into the meal, so the sugared ginger in the dessert course sent them home in peace.
The reward for all this effort? At Zephyr’s staff tasting, before the paying guests arrived, Quentin spooned a mouthful and his eyes widened. “Oh, wow,” he said, and my heart glowed.
Final lesson: stretch yourself! Dare to reach out, in love and generosity, with the best that you can muster. For me, this whole experience was one long adventure in daring and in sharing. I’m grateful to Zephyr and its wonderful people, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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