Monday, July 4, 2011

The Big Birthday Party

Betty passed the landmark seventh decade so it was time to celebrate my sweet sister in the only way I know.  Let’s have a party!  And, after our long winter and an equally long, cold and wet spring, it seemed as if even the sun was willing to come out to join the festivities.  This would be a perfect way to usher in summer as well as a new decade for Betty.
Picture taking by Joe and munchies for all
When I finished counting, it seemed that we would have between fifteen and eighteen people over for the evening, our first warm one on the patio.  I had thought to grill a salmon but Betty nixed that idea.  “Oh, nooo,” she said.  “That’s much too expensive—especially for a big group.  Why don’t you do chicken instead?  I’ll bet you have a great way of doing it on the grill!  I’ll bring a spinach salad that is absolutely the best I’ve ever had.  You’ll love it!”
That decided, the rest of the menu came together with ease.  My other sister, Rona, could be counted on to bring cheese and crackers.  She also found red, white and blue chips at Trader Joe’s for a festive nod to the 4th of July.  Munchies like that were sure to please the kids, who would eat more than their slender little bodies belied.  I would make a potato salad to augment the spinach salad, as well as deviled eggs.  I would grill chicken and corn on the cob and I would make a special cake for the birthday girl.  Not being a dessert person, every cake I have ever  made has been homely, but this time would be different.
Spinach Salad, Corn, Potato Salad and Chicken
Betty loves lemon flavoring, as I do, so this would be a lemon cake.  But not just any lemon cake.  I wanted to make a Meyer lemon cake and I knew I couldn’t fail if I used the Trader Joe box mix for Meyer lemon cake.  And I could decorate the cake with their lovely Meyer lemon wafers.  If I made a “poke cake” I wouldn’t even have to frost it (which is always a messy disaster for me).  I already had a “zero” candle so I only needed to get the “seven” to go with it.  Perfect!  Or, as they say “piece of cake!”
But when I went to Trader Joe’s in search of the Meyer lemon box cake mix, I couldn’t find it.  All they had was their new Madagascar Vanilla cake mix.
“I don’t see your lemon cake mix?” I asked the young man stocking shelves.
“Oh, we don’t have that anymore.  Not enough call for it.”
Bummer.  Now I had to rethink this.  I bought their Madagascar Vanilla cake mix anyway.  I certainly wasn’t going to try to do this from scratch.  Not with my history of cake disasters.  Lemon poke cake calls for instant lemon pudding and lemon juice among the ingredients.  Maybe I could find Meyer lemons.  Continuing my shopping travels, I went to Central Market to get some bulk spices and sea salt crystals from their incredibly extensive assortment and looked for the lemons.
“Oh, they won’t be in until at least September,” said the produce man.
“Oh yeah, you’re right.  They’re still only the size of my thumb on my little tree—and dark green.”
“How can you have a lemon tree here in cold and wet Washington?”
“It’s a dwarf tree and I take it inside in the winter.  It gets a lot of light from our skylights.  I guess I can use a lemon and an orange for the flavor.  Isn’t a Meyer lemon some kind of hybrid anyway?”
“Close enough,” and he led me to the juice oranges and lemons.
The day of the party, I picked up the quartered chickens, the corn, ice cream, and some diet Pepsi—all on sale at QFC.  Joe was puzzled when I told him I saved more than I spent.  But it’s true.  The weekly flyer that we get in the mail always dictates where I shop and what I end up putting on the table.  In this case, I got three large quartered fryers for about $13, four twelve packs of Pepsi for less than $12, sixteen ears of California corn for $4 and a half gallon of Breyer’s ice cream for under $3.  Who could beat that?  Not even Costco!
Potato Salad (serves 15)
10 – 12 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and cut into large chumks
4 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
¾ cup mayonnaise
½ cup sour cream
½ cup sweet relish
¼ cup white balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon style mustard
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Boil potatoes until done, about 30 minutes.  Rinse and let cool before peeling.  Cut potatoes into large bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and toss to combine.  Refrigerate overnight to let flavors meld.

Spinach Salad (Betty’s Recipe) Serves 15
12 cups baby spinach leaves, stems trimmed
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 cup glazed pecans (recipe follows)
½ cup crumbled goat cheese (available at Trader Joe’s)
¼ cup dressing (recipe follows)
Toss all together and serve immediately.

Glazed Pecans
2 cups pecans
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon chipotle or cayenne pepper
Scant ½ teaspoon sea salt
Blanch pecans in boiling water for 15 seconds.  Immediately remove and pat almost dry.  Roll pecans in sugar, spice and salt mixture.  Put on cookie sheet in single layer and bake at 350˚ for 15 minutes, turning once halfway through baking.  Let cool and put in sealed jar until ready to use.

Roasted Pineapple and Habanera Sauce Dressing
½ cup Roasted Pineapple and Habanera Sauce (new product at Costco)
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Mix all together in jar.

Deviled Eggs
1 dozen hard-boiled eggs
1 tablespoon Dijon style mustard
1 tablespoon white wine worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins Chicken Marinade)
Salt and ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
½ cup mock garlic aioli (recipe follows)
½ cup capers
Cut all eggs in half and remove yolks to medium bowl.  Mix with all but aioli and capers.  Refill eggs with yolk mixture.
sauté capers with juice in small pan on medium heat until liquid is absorbed.
Meanwhile, put small dollop of aioli on each filled egg.  Finish with three or four fried capers on each egg.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Mock Garlic Aioli
I usually do this from scratch, the way my father taught me, but this is a simple alternative.
2 cups good quality mayonnaise (I like Hellman’s)
1 tablespoon Dijon style mustard
Juice of ½ lemon
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence (or tarragon for a more subtle taste)
3 turns ground sea salt
3 turns ground pepper
Mix all together in jar and refrigerate until ready to use.  Makes 2 cups aioli.

Grilled Chicken (serves at least 15—we had several pieces left over)
3 quartered frying chickens
½ cup Roasted Pineapple Habanera Sauce (Costco)
¼ cup sweet red chili sauce
¼ cup olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Mix all together and coat chicken with marinade.  Set grill to medium low heat.  Grill chicken, brushing marinade with each turning.  Move pieces around to prevent scorching (though a little char is okay).  As pieces finish cooking move them to an upper shelf of the grill or off to the side, piled up if necessary. 
In last ten minutes of grill time, move chicken pieces aside and slice off breast meat diagonally off the bone. 
 Arrange corn on the grill and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and ground pepper.  Turn corn and repeat.  Corn should still be crisp and have slight grill marks when done.
Drizzling the olive oil on the corn
Slicing the Breast Meat

“Meyer” Lemon Poke Cake
1 box Trader Joe’s Madagascar Vanilla Cake Mix
1 box instant lemon pudding
4 eggs
¾ cup water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup lemon and orange juice (juice of one lemon and one small orange)
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
Mix cake mix and instant pudding together.  Add eggs, water, and oil.  Beat for 2 minutes and pour batter into greased 9” x 13” pan.  Bake at 350˚ for about 35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean.  Poke the cake all over  with a fork while it is still warm.
Mix sugar and juice together and pour over warm cake.
Just before serving, dust cake with additional sugar.  Stand Meyer lemon wafers decoratively on cake and nest sliced strawberries against the wafers.  Cut into 24 pieces.
The Cake
Presenting the Cake to the Birthday Girl

Happy Birthday Betty!

Needless to say, we all had a great time!  And now that summer is truly upon us, I’m ready to do it again soon, especially as the garden begins to produce more than lettuce.  I actually saw the first peppers—on July 1st—ready to pick!  Never have they been so early.  Usually we don’t get peppers until September and then it gets too cold for them to ripen.  It must be the hoop house.
Melrose Pepper, ready to pick


  1. Oh that was such a sweet party :)
    Delicious food, great company and wonderful stories ....
    Like the story of your father's very special stew :)

  2. What a sweet memory! Great food, great company, great weather, great stories and love in such abundance! My cup runneth over!