Cy and I had a great time at Gay Day at Hillwood on Saturday. Of course, if you know Hillwood you might well ask what makes Gay Day different from any other day there. The slogan — Where Fabulous Lives — says it all. Hillwood’s attractions include a magnificently over-the-top mansion, Russian art, themed outbuildings (an Adirondack house and a Dacha), and lovely gardens. Not that straight people don’t go to see those things, but let’s just say that the gaydar doesn’t have to work too hard there even on non-event days.
For those of you outside the DC area, Hillwood is a museum that was formerly the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the Post Cereal heiress who helped transform the company into a food giant. She was also married at one time to the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. The Soviet government, strapped for cash, held a fire sale of Russian imperial objets d’art, and Marjorie snapped up lots of them, amassing the world’s largest collection outside of Russia. Her home is filled with the stuff, along with a few things that are a little, shall we say, less artistic. One winter I went to the Hillwood Christmas party, where her plastic lighted Santa held pride of place in the living room. It really was fabulous!
Gay Day at Hillwood features afternoon tea, performances, special garden tours, and look-ins at parts of the mansion not generally open to the public. We got a glimpse of Mrs. Post’s massage room, where her every-Thursday beauty regimen took place, including sessions with a hair perming machine that looks like a giant squid sent to a bad taxidermist. But the highlight was a talk by Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington, who was also signing copies of his cookbook, Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine. He was a great choice to be the headliner at Hillwood’s Gay Day. Not least because during our only visit to The Inn at Little Washington, Cy and I dined in a room where Mrs. Post would definitely have felt right at home (as did we). Seriously, though, The Inn at Little Washington needs no introduction. But I will add my own editorial comment: through the last three decades’ explosion of the hot new restaurant, chef, cuisine, etc., The Inn has been on or atop the list of the finest restaurants in the U.S. That standard of longevity is only achieved by knowing your customer, something he also demonstrated during his talk on Saturday.
Patrick (I’ll just call him by his first name since we’re all bff now that he signed his book for us ;-)) started off by recounting a story, also found in the forward of the book, about his mother’s dinner parties. The first course of choice was a salad consisting of a peeled banana sticking upright on the plate through a pineapple ring, and festooned with shredded iceberg lettuce, a dribble of mayonnaise, and ONE maraschino cherry. (Patrick said he doesn’t have the cojones to serve that at his restaurant, although apparently only one is required.) He also talked about how he later taught himself to cook. He used to spend some days in the public library reading cookbooks because he lived in a place with only a wood stove for heat and he wanted to stay warm. Then he’d go home, fire up the stove, and cook some of the things he read about that day.
The bulk of his talk was his rules for successful entertaining. The first, that people can’t really enjoy their food when they’re standing up, isn’t something I agree with 100%, but I certainly get that it’s more difficult to pay attention to what you’re eating if you have to juggle the food and a drink while standing. And the last rule, that there should be an abundance of food, wasn’t news to us, since Cy and I always have enough to feed twice the people we invite, no matter how many there are.
Patrick’s rule that soothed our little wine-selling hearts was his number four: don’t serve rotgut wine. We’re lucky in that this doesn’t happen to us at people’s homes, but you know it still does at events and fundraisers. Mindnumbingly awful wine, presented as another check-off on an onerous list of duties. Or, at fundraisers, as an afterthought bought at the last minute because the organizers couldn’t get anything donated. (And sometimes the donations aren’t exactly great, either.)
I’m not unsympathetic to the difficulty and expense of organizing an event. Wine is often seen as a variable cost in a sea of fixed costs such as location rental and food, so organizers often look to the wine as something on which they can try to spend less. But the people you invite, if not always your friends, are people you want there, whether out of friendliness or to thank (or get them in a position where you’ll want to thank them in the future.) And if they’re not, I pretend they are. Patrick said that he thinks of each evening at the restaurant as a party he’s throwing for 100 of his closest friends, which I think is a great way to look at things. The wine you serve isn’t the most important thing to everyone, but many people will remember if you serve them bad wine (some may even take notes :-)). More wines than ever are available these days, and a lot of them don’t cost very much. There are also a lot more people than ever to help (hello!) And while you really can’t expect a $10 bottle of wine to taste exactly like a $20 bottle, you can spend $10-$13 and drink very well indeed. Depending on the volume discount, that means that an excellent time can be had by all for around $10 a bottle or less.
Patrick closed by reminding us that when you entertain (and that goes whether at home or organizing an event) you’re sharing your world with your guests. If you think of it that way, there’s no room for regrets — or for bad wine!
This week’s recipe, Sorrel Jelly with Lemon Cream and Osetra Caviar, is from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine, and is reprinted with his kind permission. It’s an elegant first course that will set off the rest of your meal. Sorrel is showing up at the farmers’ markets these days, and I love it in sorrel soup, in sauces for lamb, fish, or chicken, and raw in salads. The jelly is basically an uncooked sorrel soup with gelatin in it, so it retains the bright green color rather than the kind of olive-drab you get with the soup. The caviar is an elegant touch, but I think you could also use a few slivers of smoked salmon or prosciutto instead. Don’t be afraid of the gelatin — it’s really easy to work with. First, take the time to soften it in cold liquid. You’ll see the little granules swell up and there won’t be any visible white granules left. This can take 10 or 15 minutes. Then heat it gently to dissolve the swelled gelatin into the liquid, and only until it’s just dissolved. Don’t heat it too much or too quickly and don’t stir vigorously, or it might not set up as well as it should.
The tartness of the sorrel and lemon could make for a difficult wine pairing, but the cream softens the sharpness and the little bit of sugar in the lemon cream helps too. Many of first vine’s whites would pair well, but I like the Château de Clapier 2008 White. It’s a blend of traditional white Southern Rhône grapes, but is 60% Roussanne, which gives it more body and spice than you might expect, but it’s still crisp with a little citrus. And at $12 a bottle, you can serve it to all your guests in abundance and not worry about your wallet. So let’s raise a glass (either the jelly or the wine) to Mrs. Post, Patrick O’Connell, and to fabulousness wherever you find it!
Sorrel Jelly with Lemon Cream and Osetra Caviar
from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine, reprinted with the author’s permission
(Makes 8 first-course servings)
1 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 cups loosely packed sorrel leaves, washed, stems removed
½ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and white pepper to taste
1 cup cold chicken stock
1-1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin (unflavored gelatin)
½ cup Crème Fraîche
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt, freshly ground white pepper, and sugar to taste
1 ounce osetra caviar, optional
8 small sorrel leaves
To Make the Sorrel Jelly
- Puree the cream and sorrel in a blender.
- Add the vinegar and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.
- Place the cold chicken stock in a small heat-proof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. When the gelatin has softened, place the bowl over a small pot of simmering water until the gelatin has completely dissolved.
- Combine the gelatin and sorrel mixtures and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Refrigerate the sorrel mixture for 1 hour, until it is well chilled but not set.
- Pour about ¼ cup of the mixture into each of 8 shot glasses, demitasse cups, or martini glasses. Chill in the refrigerator overnight, or until set.
To Make the Lemon Cream
In a large mixing bowl, combine the crème fraîche, heavy cream, and lemon juice with a whisk. Season with salt, pepper, and sugar.
To Serve and Garnish
- Pour 1 tablespoon of the lemon cream on top of the sorrel jelly in each glass.
- If desired, place a small oval of caviar on top of the lemon cream.
- Garnish the glasses with the 8 small sorrel leaves.