Baby's First Bash
I admit that I’m an unabashed Ina fan. I love her impromptu parties and her How Easy Is That? temperament. Her casual, breezy approach to having folks over is so appealing.
Any Ina-watcher knows that no matter how simple or easily-accomplished the menu, Ina always pays attention to the setting of the meal and the presentation of whatever she’s making. Just recently she had some buddies handle the table design and flowers for a photo shoot. (It was really just an excuse to have a nice brunch with friends.)
This week, though, Ina takes her meal’s backdrop to a whole new level. I think it’s fair to say, even for Ina, this is a bit over the top.
Ina is celebrating a friend’s new grandchild. For a meal of what Ina calls “nursery food” for the baby’s family (which includes a 2 year old brother), Ina pulls out all the stops…for the lighting.
She enlists world class landscape lighting specialist, Greg Yale, to create a wonderland in her backyard that “the kids” will love. Well, one of them is 7 weeks old, so basically the target of all this wonder is one toddler.
I’m all for friends helping friends. Some of mine have helped me with home repair or hanging shelves; others have given me decorating advice or a lift to the train station when I needed it. But I just think that having an uber-famous lighting professional handle the scene for a simple - really simple - dinner outside is bordering on a bit much.
While Greg is making magic in the back, Ina sets to work on the nursery food “with the volume turned up”. The lavish lighting is in complete contrast to the basic, and one might say, overly spare menu.
Ina starts with a Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp. She mixes together 4 cups each of strawberries and rhubarb with sugar, orange zest and freshly squeezed OJ, mixed with cornstarch. Ina spoons the fruit mixture into a big baking dish. I’ve never added cornstarch to a fruit crisp in my life. I can’t decide if that’s cheating. Interesting…
I shouldn’t admit this, but when I looked in on Pioneer Woman this weekend, she also was making a crisp and she ALSO added cornstarch. I’m not sure what the lesson is here…
Ina reminds us how much she loves paying attention to the setting for a dinner. She tells us there’s no one like Greg Yale to do that. A quick perusal into his background tells us that he’s quite fancy-schmancy. Ina says Greg “offered” to do the lighting.
So let's get this straight - Good friends of Ina’s just had a grandchild, so she’s throwing a small soirée (so small that the table will be set for 6) out in the garden with the help of a RENOWNED LIGHTING DESIGNER. Why does this bother me so much? No idea, but do YOU think it's all too much? Ina is not the least bit sheepish about getting Greg to cast a few atmospheric shadows over her dinner table.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. When I finally score a grandchild or two (and believe me it’s not looking that likely – apparently the more you ask, the less willing your kids are to do their mother a favor), I’ll probably feel like renting out Versailles and hiring The Grucci Family to do the night sky display. But saying that is one thing and actually doing it is another thing. Probably the best I can hope for is to make sure the CFL’s are turned on in advance, so we can see where to put down the pigs in blankets.
Next up we meet Greg who tells us about his plan, which includes 6 foot wide helium-filled balloons. He’s got a crew with him and they’re moving around firewood along with a huge copper firepit. His plan is to construct a “festival of light” for Ina.
Back in the kitchen, Ina makes the crumble topping for the crisp. She mixes 1 cup of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, ½ cup of white sugar and 1 cup of oatmeal (plus salt…ick) in a mixer. She adds TWELVE tablespoons of cut-up butter and mixes it until the butter resembles peas. Ina spoons the mixture all over the top of the cornstarched fruit to cover it. It goes into the fridge to be baked right before dinner.
Next Ina is making spicy turkey meatballs. She says Jeffrey loves meatballs. (Is there ANY thing that Ina makes that he doesn’t love?) She processes 3 cups of “really good” bread into the food processor and then soaks it in milk (to make a tender meatball, she says). Greg has forbidden her to peek at the lights and she’s not sure she can wait. Greg tells us he’s going for something really different.
Ina says to use 87% or 90% lean turkey. Any leaner than that, the meatballs will be really dry. She adds 2 lbs. of ground turkey to a bowl with sausage removed from its casings, some diced prosciutto, asiago (hate it), bread crumbs, fresh parsley, dried oregano (she thinks fresh oregano is too strong), red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and eggs. Thank goodness! For a minute I got worried and thought Ina was using turkey as a healthier option.
Here’s a question. Do you add eggs to your meatballs and meatloaf? I had a nice exchange with a reader about adding eggs to lasagna filling (which I don’t) and also to meatballs and meat loaf. We agreed that leaving them out is fine. She took it one step further and said she made her Thanksgiving stuffing egg-free. I never thought about that before, but it’s probably okay to leave them out there too. As far as meatballs AND meatloaf go, I leave out the eggs and just add a big squirt of ketchup, which seems to do the trick. (I suppose you could argue that eggs are better for you than ketchup, but do what you appeals to you.)
At the end, Ina throws olive oil into the meatball mix “for richness”. I think that’s unnecessary, except that she is BAKING them instead of frying, so, perhaps, the extra oil makes them juicier.
Ina makes 22 or 24 two inch meatballs. Hmm, she’s using her hands and not an ice cream scoop. She places them on a baking sheet and brushes them with more olive oil. They’ll bake at 400° F. for 35 minutes. Later they’ll get cooked in the sauce.
Ina is using 3 jars of what looks to be Francesco Rinaldi sauce. I don’t object to the general public using jarred sauce (my go-to sauce is Barilla), but I don’t really think Ina should be using it (while the camera is on). She adds the meatballs and simmers it all together very slowly.
Ina goes out into the garden to see what’s going on. Oh my, it does look amazing! There are THREE giant helium balloons, which have lights INSIDE them (how did he do that?) And the bushes are lit as well.
Ina whips up Truffled Popcorn as an hors d’oeuvre. Don’t you think the 2 year old is going to say it tastes funny? She melts 2 oz. of truffle butter and puts the crisp in the oven for one hour at 350° F.
Ina adds the popcorn to a bowl with some salt and the truffle butter. It passes her taste test.
Her friend Barbara and husband arrive with their daughter, grandson and the new baby. The kid tastes the popcorn and doesn’t say anything (thank goodness).
Ina drains the spaghetti and puts it in a BIG bowl and spoons over the meatballs and sauce. Wouldn’t Italians stir some sauce into the pasta first?
Ina enjoys calling it “sketty”. When I was a kid, my sister’s word for it was “fizghetti” (still is). I raised my kids to be annoying and call it pasta. But that was probably a comment on their vocabulary skills – one word for different things was easier. ;-)
Ina places the big bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs in the middle of the table. No bread? No extra cheese? The poor new mom is holding the baby the whole time…OUTSIDE in the cold.
The lighting IS stunning. The 3 big balloons look like low-hanging full moons. The bushes behind the table have little twinkling lights. Really pretty. Maybe having a big honcho do what he does best IS the way to go, even if only 6 people will see it. (Not counting us, of course.)
The hot Rhubarb Crisp is a big hit. Of course it is, it’s freezing. Who thought that having a newborn baby outside in the cold night was a good idea? But I guess when Ina calls, you go. Little brother Charlie loves the S’mores they make by the huge fire pit. He’s probably just trying to keep warm, while the mom is holding the baby tight trying to stave off frostbite. A better idea would have been to have the meal INSIDE, in front of a big window and admire the lighting in a more comfortable setting. How easy would that have been?