The table is set for the Slow Food South Texas and Peeler Farm dinner featuring Chef John Brand.
I have a confession to make. As a northerner I am not cut out for summers in South Texas. I would like to say the heat makes me lethargic but I don’t think that is a strong enough word to describe my current state of being. In fact when the mercury rises above 85F I reach a state of hibernation. I slow down dramatically and find it difficult to accomplish much more than the basic tasks required to sustain life. Luckily eating and drinking are a few of the “required tasks,” unfortunately blogging is not.
With my weak excuse laid before you, we can now get down to the crux of this post. The highlights of the second dinner in the Slow Food South Texas Farm Dinner Series. If I had to describe it in a few short words ... amazing and delicious. For those of you who need a little more than that continue reading for a slightly more wordy description.
While I had visited Peeler Farms before, I never made it very far past the pastures of chickens or utilitarian farm out-buildings. After passing these familiar sights, I drove down the lengthy driveway and the Peeler Ranch came into view. What stretched before me was a vast expanse of well manicured green lawn, surrounded by mature live oak, hickory and pecan trees, at the center of which sat the ranch homestead. The home, a low slung one-story ranch surrounded on three sides with a deep screened in porch. At the back of the house was a large slate and flagstone patio with flower beds and two long tables. Each table was dressed with a white tablecloth, flatware, and wildflowers in mason jars. The scene was both elegant and understated at the same time.
As the guests arrived they were treated to the music of Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist from the Band of Heathens, some aguas frescas, and an informal tour of the farm from Marianna Peeler. Guests were encouraged to roam the grounds and a few of the younger guests even got the opportunity to hold one of the chicks.
After the tours, Chef Brand's much anticipated 5 course meal began with a flourish of champagne and three hors d'oeuvres served as guests chatted on the patio. The first to make it to me was the deviled eggs with black garlic. While I will be the first to admit that fermented or "black" garlic is definitely an acquired taste, I will say that Chef Brand used them with a light hand balancing the sweet and savory flavors. Marianna's pasture eggs were cooked perfectly. Firm whites topped with a creamy yolk and black garlic mixture. The next hors d'oeuvre I tried was the chicken liver pâté. Served in small mason jars topped with a rhubarb gelee, the pâté appeared deceptively simple. It was only until I felt the smooth texture that I fully appreciated Chef's skill. The pâté was silky smooth and highlighted the robust flavors found in organ meat without being overpowering. The last dish before being seated was one of my favorites of the night; smoked dates stuffed with blue cheese wrapped in candied bacon. I know, I know ... none of these ingredients come from chickens but it was absolutely delicious. Again the balance of sweet and savory was outstanding.
After the guests were seated they were treated to an amuse bouche of flan "en cocotte." Using the egg-shell as a serving dish, the mild sweetness of the flan served as a palate cleanser while chef Brand described the night's menu.
As introductions between neighbors grew into conversation, the wine began to flow, and the servers began arriving with the "first" seated course of four different salads. The dinner was served family style and the salads were of generous proportions as they flaunted the abundance of South Texas' first harvest of summer.
The color of the watermelon, quinoa and kale salad with its reds, yellows, and greens attested to its bright flavors; light, sweet, crisp and refreshing. The potato salad was a little more substantial without being too heavy. The smokey flavor of the salmon permeating the crème fraîche mixed with fresh chives. Think sour cream and chives, but taken to a whole new level. The grilled artichoke, arugula, and romaine caesar made a perfect bruschetta. The crusty bread acting as the ideal crouton. Finally, my favorite, the charred carrot salad. The carrots' natural sugars intensified by the carmelization. Chef Brand had achieved the perfect balance of supple and firm; these were not your mother's cooked carrots.
As we feasted on the gifts of summer I forced myself to take a pause and save room for the main courses. Chef Brand had prepared two dishes highlighting Marianna's chickens. The first was a roasted chicken served in beautiful copper dishes, the second a chicken confit and lentils; with my favorite herb marjoram. In addition, chef also served a dish of braised lamb which I guiltily admit was my favorite dish of the night. I know, I know, the lamb wasn't grown on Peeler's farm but it was too delicious and stole the show. Since I cannot describe the flavors of each dish without appearing to be a complete glutton I will let you feast on them with your eyes.
As the sun set on one horizon, a full moon rose on the other. While the guests' stomachs had been satiated their hunger for good conversation and thirst for wine continued. Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist resumed their playing and as twilight gave way to night the music mixed with the sounds of South Texas' nocturnal fauna; providing a sublime soundtrack to the evening. Regretfully, as I settled into my chair I realized another amazing dinner was almost over. The servers reading my mind, brought the last course.
Dessert consisted a plethora of truffles, macaroons, and a peach cobbler with sticky toffee pudding. Like the courses before it, this last one was both bountiful and delicious, balanced in flavor and texture. As the evening came to a close, the guests voiced their approval of chef Brand and his team. Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist gave the musical lead to the songs of the Texas frogs and insects and the crowd slowly faded into the night.