I don’t know about you but when I have friends or family visiting, the first thing I think about after the excitement of seeing my visitors is what I’m going to feed them. I tell my family, “food is love.” Now, certain television celebrities or maybe psychologists would be all over that with some deep psychoanalysis. But basically, I think one of the most loving things you can do is cook good food for people. It’s memorable to share a meal. It’s relaxing and joyful.

So with two sets of special friends visiting back-to-back in July, I wanted to show them some cooking love!

Our first guests arrived in time for dinner. We moved our outdoor dining table and chairs under the shade of the apple tree. We set up a folding table and our propane camp stove so I could visit while grilling table side. You don’t need a $20,000 outdoor kitchen to make a gourmet meal. Although I wouldn’t mind having that set up. The outdoor grilling made for fun entertainment for our guests and I wasn’t confined to the kitchen on a beautiful day.

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Grilled asparagus salad. Photo by Kim Leval

For dinner starter I plated grilled asparagus, with pancetta and a poached egg. This was topped with mustard vinaigrette. We enjoyed crisp white wine. A Pinot gris, Viognier, or a lighter Chardonnay would pair well with this salad.

For the main course I served grilled lamb chops accompanied by grilled bread brushed with olive oil and topped with tomatoes just picked from the garden. Pinot noir is a good pairing with the lamb.

For dessert I made blueberry hand pies. I used prepared piecrust and reshaped it into smaller circles. The filling included boiled down blueberries, sugar, vanilla and a little cornstarch for thickening.

Day two, I seared snap peas from the garden, and grilled halibut and pineapple. Pineapple caramelizes when grilled and compliments the buttery taste of the halibut. We drank Chardonnay with this meal. Since it was the Fourth of July, for dessert, I included a choice of blueberry hand pies or cherry pie and ice cream. I also served Port as we sat around the fire pit to honor my Portuguese heritage.

For the next night, I started with a salad of blood oranges, goat cheese, olives and assorted greens. I topped it off with homemade Champagne vinaigrette. Again, a Pinot gris or other dryer, white wine goes well with this salad.

For the main course we enjoyed mussels in Pernod (recipe below) and bread brushed with olive oil and grilled. We drank a Pinot gris. Blueberry hand pies for dessert topped off the meal.

On the last night, dinner in the garden began with a Gazpacho (recipe below) of tomatoes, green pepper, cucumber and herbs topped with a dollop of sour cream. Gazpacho is an un-cooked soup and lovely served on a hot day. We drank a dry Prosecco with the Gazpacho. I then grilled New York steaks table side accompanied by seared snap peas. We drank a Cabernet Sauvignon with the steak. The dessert honored our guest’s home country of Italy. I served panna cotta with blueberry compote I made from our own just picked garden blueberries. As they say in Italia, “Benne, Benne!

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Panna cotta with blueberry compote. Photo by Kim Leval

Recipes

Pernod-Scented Mussels

This recipe is adapted from The Girl and the Fig Cookbook, by Sondra Bernstein (Simon and Schuster, 2004). If you are ever in Sonoma, try wonderful The Girl and The Fig French restaurant located in the Sonoma Hotel at 110 W Spain St, Sonoma, CA 95476.

Shop for mussels at a seafood shop and ask how fresh they are. Make sure you get mussels with closed shells that have been cleaned with the beards removed.

 3 pounds (serves 6) mussels (look for the freshest option in your area)

2 tablespoons blended oil (1 part olive oil and 3 parts canola)

3 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced

1 fennel bulb, sliced lengthwise in strips

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 cups dry white wine

¼ cup Pernod (buy in wine section or liquor store)

2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley (from your garden if you have it)

3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (from garden)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter.

 Run mussels under cold water to remove any remaining grit and beards. Dry thoroughly.

 Heat the oil in a large sauté pan and add the leeks and fennel, season lightly with salt and pepper. Saute until leeks start to turn translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and mussels and stir well. Add the white wine and Pernod and cover the pan. Cook slowly over medium heat until the mussels start to open, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the lid, add the herbs and the butter, and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove any mussels that did not open and do not eat them. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning as needed. Mussels can hold saltwater inside, so be careful not to over salt.

 We drank a Pinot gris but Viognier is also a nice pairing with these mussels.

 

Gazpacho

Gazpacho is a refreshing cold soup and a great way to use fresh summer garden produce. It is also vegetarian and vegan (without the dollop of sour cream), if you are so inclined.

This recipe makes a large batch feeding 8 people or for leftovers.

6-8 medium tomatoes (garden fresh are best)

½ green pepper

½ onion (I used Walla Walla sweet)

½ seeded cucumber

3 cloves garlic

sprig each of fresh basil and dill

1 cup tomato juice

¼ cup red wine vinegar

¼ cup olive oil

dash of hot sauce (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

hard-boiled egg, crumbled for topping (optional)

sour cream for topping off (optional)

 I put all the ingredients in a large bowl and then blended lightly in batches in a food processor. If you use a blender be sure to leave a lot of room at the top as you blend it. I found a food processor to work the best. Blend lightly. Do not puree. Chill. You can serve topped with crumbled hard-boiled egg or a dollop of sour cream.

 

Panna Cotta

Panna cotta is a custard-like Italian dessert that you make ahead, chill and then enjoy with various fruit compotes, caramel or other sauces. It is smooth and creamy and not too sweet.

1 ½ cup milk

1 (1/4 oz) envelope unflavored gelatin

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream

½ cup sugar

2 cups plain, whole milk yogurt (Greek preferable)

 In a medium bowl, mix together milk, gelatin and vanilla until gelatin dissolves. Set aside.

 In a small saucepan, combine heavy cream and sugar. Heat on medium and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and stir in gelatin mixture until gelatin melts.

 Transfer mixture to a large bowl with a spout, if you have one. Add yogurt to bowl; stir until smooth and well combined. Pour mixture into six 6-ounce ramekins. Transfer to refrigerator and chill until set, about two hours. You can chill up to overnight. To release panna cotta from ramekins, slide a knife carefully around the inside edge of the ramekins. The panna cotta should slide out. Release the creamy goodness onto dessert plates and serve with blueberry compote (recipe below) or your favorite sauce.

 

Simple Blueberry Compote

Serves 6

2 cups fresh blueberries

3 tablespoons water

¼ cup sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Start with combining 1 cup of the berries with water, sugar and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat until berries start to pop open, about 10 minutes. Add the rest of the blueberries and cook for 8 to 9 minutes more, stirring frequently. Serve warm over panna cotta or ice cream.