The prospect of Mom and Dad's 70th birthdays puzzled my brother, Mike, and me. We wanted to do something big for them, but I live in Boulder, Mike dwells near my parents outside of Philadelphia, and neither of us is exactly heavy with cash.
Both of us knew, at least, what would please them most: For the family to be together somewhere.
We talked about renting a place in the Colorado mountains. We looked into a night in New York City, with a show on Broadway. But our budgets could sustain neither.
We toyed with a big dinner at a fine restaurant, which sounded like fun, at first. But then we began imagining the evening: A few cars, enough for at least 10 people, maybe more. Lots of stiff sitting. A long table, which means conversations happen in little islands — an archipelago of chats. Menu disappointments. The check's thud. Driving home, and plummeting into bed. One huge celebration, over in three hours.
Ideas about fun wore off.
But then it hit me, in the fall (Mike and I had been pondering the birthdays since before my mom's, in April): Why not prepare a trio of feasts for them, in the family house, the one they bought in 1971 (and where they remain) when they were nursing a young family? And then the musing grew more ornate.
Let's give them a Mediterranean cruise, minus the S.S. Big Ship and the Dramamine. We will cook Spanish one night, French another, and cap it off with an Italian feast and a larger party. Appropriate regional wine, and cheese, would accompany each meal.
The Mediterranean approach made great sense: Everybody can find dishes to adore from southern Europe, and the ingredients often overlap. We would buy a lot of garlic, parsley, olive oil and canned tomatoes. Galangal, fish sauce, habanero peppers and tortillas? Nada.
Either way, Mediterranean cruise with balsamic vinegar and baguettes, or around-the-world voyage with soy sauce and tamales, we do the cooking; Mom and Dad relax with their excited grandchildren.
Mike endorsed the idea, and the planning began, much of it revolving around menus and logistics.
Part of the celebration hinged on surprise. Mom's and Dad's birthdays came and went in 2012, with little fanfare from Mike and me. I could tell: Our joint shrug over the milestones puzzled them.
"Don't worry," we told them. "You will be happy."
They seemed a bit perturbed when Christmas passed, without their birthdays receiving much attention from their sons; I suspect they imagined a holiday get-together. The year turned, too, without a celebration.
But two days into 2013, on the 2nd of January, my family of four flew to Philadelphia; Mom and Dad did not know — surprise! — we were coming.
Boy, were they happy.
Then came the full report about the upcoming weekend — the landlocked, Mid-Atlantic Mediterranean cruise.
My wife, Annie, and I began the 72-hour party with an epic shopping trip that took us through two Pennsylvania counties and nearly into the state of Delaware. While Mike and Dad worked, and my daughters ran around my parents' kid-packed neighborhood and spent time with Mom, Annie and I filled shopping carts with fennel bulbs and sausage, with celery and canned San Marzano tomatoes and bottles of Rioja and loaves of bread.
During the course of the weekend we made a few more stops for supplies. The total bill: About $400. Two of the meals fed 10; the Italian feast served 20. The same amount might have covered dinner for 10 in a nice restaurant.
Once Annie and I returned from shoppingpalooza we parked ourselves in the kitchen and began chopping, peeling, sauteing. For the next three days, the house smelled like garlic, parsley, French cheese, beef stewing in wine, roasted peppers, smoked ham. Garlic. More garlic.
We were loose with the cruise concept. The dishes did not have to evoke the Mediterranean coast, but they did have to come from Spain, France and Italy. The cheese puffs we cooked for the French dinner, called gougeres, and the beef bourguignon are popular in Burgundy, far from the sea. The stuffed chicken thighs, called fagottini di pollo, are from Lombardy, one of only four regions in Italy, out of 20, without a coastline.
Waves and tides or not, the cruise-concept gave us precisely what we wanted: days spent together in the big kitchen (which is where most life happens in my parents' house anyway) with Dad at his customary spot on a stool, giving him a view of the football on television and the sports section of The Philadelphia Inquirer laid-out on the counter.
Here, in the bright kitchen, we listened to Mom tell the girls stories about growing up, just miles from the house where we gathered. We watched Mom and Dad, who began dating in 9th grade (in a high school just minutes away), revel in the whole chaotic spectacle of kids, laughs, pots, dishes, and garlic.
Love, of course, brought us all together for the birthday weekend. But food kept us close, made things warmer, gave the weekend flavors that have nothing to do with garlic.
We didn't just sit down for meals. We ogled recipes, yakked about techniques, inhaled the aroma of sweating onions, taste-tested the pork-dense Spanish stew, shared discs of frico (cheese crisps from Italy's Friuli region), made toasts with glasses of chianti and Rhone, cleaned-up after the meatball-making bonanza, gobbled leftovers.
Bon voyage, indeed. What a cruise.
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, email@example.com or twitter.com/douglasjbrown
MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE RECIPES
Skillet-Braised Chicken Bundles
From "Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich. Serves 6.
1 medium onion, cut in chunks
1 large carrot, cut in chunks
1 large stalk celery, cut in chunks
8-12 fresh sage leaves
2 plump garlic cloves, peeled
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6-8 thin-sliced strips of bacon
2 cups dry white wine, like pinot grigio
3 cups (one 28-ounce can) canned Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano tomatoes, either already crushed or crushed by hand before using
3 to 4 tablespoons grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
Using a food processor, mince the onion, carrot, celery, 4 sage leaves, and the garlic into a fine-textured paste. Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a big, heavy-bottomed, ovenproof skillet and set over medium heat. Stir the paste into the oil, season with ½ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until it just starts to stick to the bottom of the pan. Scrape it into a bowl to cool.
Trim chicken thighs of fat and loose bits of flesh and lay them open, boned side up, on a cutting board. Cover each thigh with plastic wrap and pound it with a meat mallet (or some other heavy implement) to an even thickness of about ½ inch. Sprinkle salt lightly on flattened sides, using no more than ½ teaspoon in all.
Spread anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the paste in a thin layer on each thigh, almost to the edges. Fold the thighs into thirds, as if folding a letter, and compress gently. Wrap a strip of bacon the long way around each bundle, so the open sides are partly sealed. Overlap ends of the bacon and thread a toothpick through them to hold the strip in place.
Pour the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil into the big skillet — cleaned of paste — and set over medium-high heat. Lay all of the chicken bundles in the pan, turning them when the bacon starts sizzling and rendering fat. Saute them for 5 minutes or more, turning several times (you will probably have to gently remove the toothpicks to flip them over). As the chicken browns, drop the remaining paste by spoonfuls in between the bundles, along with the rest of the sage leaves.
When everything is sizzling, pour in the wine and bring to a bubbling simmer. Cook until the wine has reduced by half, turning the thighs occasionally. Pour the crushed tomatoes and juices all over the bundles, and shake the pan to mix them with the wine. Bring the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan, adjust the heat to keep things just bubbling, and braise until the thighs are tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
When the meat is done, uncover the skillet, raise the heat, and reduce braising liquid a bit. You are looking for a relatively thick sauce.
If you want a crisp, cheesy topping for the dish, arrange a rack in the top part of your oven and preheat to 425 degrees while the chicken braises. When the oven is ready, remove the toothpicks from the bundles, sprinkle a teaspoon of grated cheese over each, and put the skillet in the oven. Bake 10 minutes or more, until the cheese is golden, the bacon very crisp, and the sauce very thick.
From "Saveur Cooks Authentic French" (Chronicle Books, 1999). Makes 3 dozen.
8 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
¾ cup milk½ cup water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups grated comté or gruyère cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine butter, ½ cup of the milk, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and when butter has melted, remove pan from heat. Add flour all at once and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a thick dough and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 1 to 3 minutes. Return pan to heat for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
Let dough cool to room temperature, then beat in eggs, one at a time, making sure each egg is completely incorporated into mixture and dough is smooth after each addition. Dough should be thick, shiny, and smooth. Add 1 cup of the cheese and beat in until well combined.
Spoon tablespoon-size mounds of dough onto nonstick baking sheets, leaving about 1inch between each. Brush tops with remaining ¼ cup milk, then sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese. Bake one tray at a time in lower third of oven until gougeres have doubled in size and are golden, 20-25 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Sizzling Garlic Shrimp
Adapted from "The New Spanish Table," by Anya Von Bremzen (Workman Publishing Co. 2005.) Serves 4 or 5 as a tapa, or 3 as a light main course.
1¼ pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
Coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ to 1 small dry red chile, such as arbol, crumbled
3 to 4 tablespoons miced, fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Country bread, for serving
Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, then sprinkle salt over them
Place the olive oil in a saute pan and heat over medium-low heat until the oil shimmers and the garlic begins to sizzle gently. Cook until the garlic is very fragrant, but not colored, anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Add the chile and stir for a few seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, until they just begin to turn pink, about 3 or 4 minutes.
Season with salt to taste, stir in the parsley, and cook for a few seconds longer. Serve the shrimp in bowl with plenty of bread alongside, for dipping.