Friday, February 21, 2014


Every other year when we still had our weekend home in Andes we'd host an open house for the community around the Christmas/New Year's holiday. We'd print out announcements and hand them out at our store trying to make sure that everyone in town knew that they were welcome. It became a bit of a tradition at times attracting up to three hundred locals and weekenders with six hundred stockinged feet padding around the house from top to bottom, tens of kids playing hide-n-seek from the third floor to the basement, an advertising executive and part-time opera singer leading caroling in the snug and an array of desserts and hors d'oeurvers prepared days in advance by Rick and Rosalie, a close friend and local slow food trained baker. The event became so popular that one year Country Living came to cover the event for their magazine.
The house in Andes is now gone but the tradition is bubbling up again in a new location, Madison. The Prosecco is back on the bar menu along with the other whites, a chardonnay, a Riesling, some sparkling cider and some bubbling water.
A big rule of hosting an open house as opposed to a dinner is not to serve anything red if you value your furniture and carpeting. It also makes your guest a little less nervous and a whole lot less guilty if they spill a glass. Another thing we do is use all our best stemware. We've lost a few pieces over the years but it tends to set a tone for the evening that takes the event a few steps above a college kegger. Rule two: no Solo cups for us.
The next rule is always dress the table and any other place you can think of with fresh flowers. I'm most likely to grab a couple dozen roses and spread them around the house. I'll think about color but that's usually about as far as I get. Rick, on the other hand, is miles ahead of me on presentation. We had these fish bowls sitting in our store since we opened - no takers. Then they went to a storage shelf in the garage until Rick pulled them out to contain his arrangement, filled them with water and slices of lemon and then twisted a bunch of daffodils in a perfect spiral for a simple but outside the box set of centerpieces. Just another way of making the table look more laden with goods without really having to cook or bake anything more to fill the voids.
Another of Rick's rules to make the event a little less stressful is to focus on two or three wow offerings and let the rest come from already prepared foods from local vendors. A huge fruit and cheese plate
and a few dips by the pound
accompanied by a big basket of breads, crackers and cheese sticks fills out a whole section of the table.
Then you can always ask your friends to help out. We, fortunately, have a friend we don't even need to ask. Julie Moskal donated her services and every little sweet treat we laid out: Momma's classic chocolate chip cookies, double chocolate cookies, lemon tartlets and the best ginger snaps you've ever tasted.
We also set up two bars in two unconnected parts of the house and separate from the food. It relieves congestion and tends to spread the guests out so everyone feels they have a little more room to circulate or hide.
Rick will spend weeks before a party perusing his wall of cookbooks and the Internet looking for the perfect wow moment for the table. This year Ina Garten and Rachael Ray came to his aid.
Deviled eggs are always a hit but Rachael Ray gave us eggs with a twist: Ceasar salad deviled eggs. This was something we thought we could begin a little in advance by getting our eggs boiled and set ahead of time. What we didn't find out was the age of our eggs. Unlike a fertility clinic you want your eggs to be a little on the old side instead of freshly laid. They peel a lot easier when they're old. It's kind of like any of us as we age, the skin starts to loosen and sag away from the bone. Rick's mom would put a sign on her eggs warning the kids not to use the old ones she had pushed way to the back of the frig if she was going to use them for deviling. Even after we had let our eggs sit for twenty-four hours they wouldn't easily peel. I spent hours chipping off pinhead-sized pieces of shell on every one of four dozen eggs. I had cuts under my fingernails that didn't heal for days from trying to get those shells off.
But the gold-star appetizer was Ina's caramelized bacon. Guests were slapping each other's hands as they struggled to out wit and out play each other for one more piece of spicy finger-lickin' sweet and sticky caramelized bacon.
You can look up Ina's recipe but here are a few tips we learned in preparing our bacon. We used locally produced applewood-smoked thick, and I mean thick, bacon. We started cutting it at an angle at about four inch long pieces thinking it would shrink up but if you use quality bacon shrinkage is at a minimum. We then cut down to two inch pieces, which were more bit sized.  Ina's recipe calls for placing the bacon stripes on a baking rake to bake. We used a cooling rake and since we're such neat freaks we set the rack on an aluminum wrapped baking sheet.
The benefit here was unplanned but a sweet, sweet surprise. The drippings left on the aluminum foil after the bacon had baked hardened into a caramel lace that we peeled off and placed in a container. This combination of brown sugar, maple syrup and bacon fat broken up over some French vanilla ice cream is ambrosia. Sorry to all our guests and the pigs that made this possible, we decided not to share this one but keep it for ourselves.
Even if the food you serve is spectacular it's ultimately the guests that make the event. Thanks to all our friends and neighbors who came. Sharing when you can is proof to us of how rewarding it is to give.

Hog Killing Time in Appalachia
Photographer unknown
From the blog: My Appalachian Life
By Roger Hicks

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