BLOG-Bread, Salt, and Wine
- Published: November 2, 2013
I—like many other Americans—discovered the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life on television in 1974. The 1946 film flopped at the box office, but 1974 saw its phoenix-like revival. My local public television station found three virtues in the film: First, it starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; second, it had a Christmas theme; and third, the station could broadcast it for free as, due to a clerical error, its copyright had lapsed. Once in heavy rotation, this complicated portrait of promise, regret, and resilience won my heart and loyalty. For me, it handily earned the spot as BEST FILM EVER by the time the lead character pulled petals of his daughter’s rose from his pocket and—in abject relief and true understanding—rejoiced at the awkward but radiant beauty of his life.
In a pivotal scene earlier in the film, George Bailey and his wife Mary host a house warming for the Martini family. Mary gives the Martinis a loaf of bread “that the house may never know hunger”, and salt “that life may always have flavor”. George produces a bottle of wine with a flourish, “that joy and prosperity may reign forever. Enter the Martini Castle!”
It’s a powerful scene that distills the motivation behind affordable housing. George Bailey’s ambitions run to architecting great suspension bridges and traveling the world. Instead, his life is anchored to his hometown and affordable living projects within it. The transformative power of his accomplishments through the Bailey Building and Loan is almost lost on him until he sees how life would be without his steady influence.
Inspired by similar forces to the Bailey Building and Loan, the mission of the community land trust Yellow Springs Home, Inc is straightforward…that the joy and promise portrayed by the Martini family in the black and white film be realized in full technicolor by the young families whose prosperity is intricately linked to our own. Today we seek to sustain the steady efforts of Home, Inc by participating in the nonprofit’s annual progressive dinner. We are hosting one of the many dinners in town. On the menu at our house is salmon, pasta, and butternut squash. I’ll be visiting the morning’s markets and cooking my daughter’s favorite dishes for our guests before the festivities kickoff downtown at 6pm tonight.
When Beth Bridgeman approached me to host one of the night’s dinners, I first considered turkey as the main dish; but, on second thought, a roasted bird was too ambitious. I had a two hour window—6:45pm until 8:45pm—in which to serve and satisfy six guests with a fittingly special meal. The planned meal must either come together quickly or dramatically fail with a respectable space of time to recover. Hmmm.
The recollection of a salmon dish pushed to the fore of my psyche—Salmon en Croute—or Salmon in Pastry, simple, elegant, and deliciously memorable. I had never made a savory pastry before, but I forecast that I had a full month to test recipes so no problem. Ok, problem, three weeks passed with no test and then also the weekend prior saw no test. Time was running short.
I did accomplish the necessary research scanning the web for appropriate recipes. I found many accounts testifying to the ease of the dish which reassured. With the praise, however, came the clear warning that the baked dish proved bland. Alert to this danger, I remained confident in my seasoning abilities enough to assert Salmon en Croute when Beth surveyed her hosts for their main courses about two weeks before the event.
Unfortunately, I continued to procrastinate baking a sample dish. Preparations for Halloween remained forward in our minds, and I “knew” that I could bake the dish the Friday morning before. Everything seemed easily in hand until the day before Halloween when Beggars’ Night got bumped from Thursday 31 October to Friday 1 November. The forecast of bad weather was fulfilled on Thursday by the terrific crash of unexpected tornados—one tearing up trees, fences, and power lines on North Enon Road just east of its intersection with Mudd Run Road.
Thursday night, as advised, we buttoned down the homestead hatch until Friday’s sun-graced release. All Saints’ Day’s bright warmth played in counterpoint to Halloween’s stormy gloom. In the evening hours, we fed our young beggars teasing frights and sugary food until 8pm and then followed friends to Mills Lawn School for the winning production of Almost, Maine. The play’s setting—a snow covered small town—evoked George Bailey’s Bedford Falls in its heart-on-the-sleeve affability and essential goodness. Well played by the Yellow Springs High School students, the population of Almost were ernest folks afoot on stumbling paths to and from love. Our high school actors braved slippery subjects digging out of the snowy landscape all the bracing humor of a first, and perhaps last, clumsy embrace.
Back at the house, I put my six year old theatre companion to bed and finally—finally—embraced the undertaking of my pastry-wrapped salmon. I formed the puff pastry dough late Friday night using the last 2 cups of flour in the house. I shaped three separate balls of dough, each mass about 200 gram, ivory in color, marbly in texture, and a tad too dry. I had enough, just enough, to serve my company the next day but remained decidedly short the necessary dough to test and tweak a recipe. I ignored the crumbly frissions, push the dough flat to form three hockey-puck rounds, and chilled them in the refrigerator overnight.
The next morning, I picked up provisions at the Yellow Springs markets. In the Kings Yard farmers market, there were apples from Flying Mouse Farms, fresh picked dill and newly dug potatoes from Peach Mountain, and braided garlic bulbs by Peach Mountain’s Leslie Garcia. At the Corner Cone market, I gathered two clutches of mixed fresh salad greens from Patchwork Gardens then made my way to Tom’s Market. I restocked on white flour, brown button mushrooms, and deep red pomegranates. Taking the load of produce home and heading out again for three salmon filets, I caught a rebroadcast of This American Life. In a classic episode featuring the true story about the utter collapse of a high school production of Peter Pan, Ira Glass and his guests dissected the necessary components of a full-out fiasco. Brushing off the hint of trouble, I reassured myself that the planned meal hardly represented an over-reach of ambition and, in any case, it would in no way manifest in complete failure. I don’t quite succeed in restoring my confidence as my husband and co-combatant was missing in action, the victim of a flat tire. Presently I had to soldier on without him. My confidence did lift enough that I invested in just enough salmon…three wild salmon filets…and no more.
Taking a deep breath to assure myself that I would see my husband and his assistance soon, I returned downtown to help Joan Horn set up at the Presbyterian Church. When I entered the building, the first touches are set out. On tables covered in bright contrasting clothes were vases of flowers and several cases of wine donated by the Winds Cafe.
Joan Horn sent me back to my home kitchen with a smile, and I promised her success. A pot of water waited for me on the stove top and I turned up its burner to high. I dropped in an array of potatoes, their skins swirling with purple, peach, and cream. While the potatoes boiled for an hour, I prepped thin slices of shallot and mushrooms, tossed them with the fish, lemon zest, olive oil, springs of dill, and salt and pepper. My husband returned with the children in time to cover this mixture and place it in the refrigerator to chill, its taste and textures to mingle.
My husband set the table with our wedding linens and tossed a salad using the produce collected at the morning market: the greens, the apples, the mushrooms. I rescued the boiling potatoes to separate the two pounds of soften taters from their skins and to process their innards through a potato ricer. To make pasta, I hand-mixed the riced potatoes with 200 grams of semolina flour and two eggs plus one egg white (reserving one egg yolk to brush over the pastry dough on the salmon en croute).
Giving my fingers a break from the heat of the potatoes, I found my daughter preparing an ambitious meal in the living room. With two burners going in her blue and red toy kitchen, she sliced and separated her wooden “vegetables” for the pot. I peeled her away from her own preparations so that she could roll the gnocchi with me. We started a fresh pot of water on the stove and cooked the delicate pasta at a gentle boil. My daughter and I rolled the pasta balls—about 36 per batch—from a cutting board into the hot water. Dropping in six or so each quarter turn, we’d rotated the board above the water-filled pot so that we distributed the pasta evenly about its basin. The board also protect her small hands from the splashing entry of the dense pasta balls. The first three dozen gnocchi rounds came out firm leaving a trace of starch behind them. By the sixth and final batch, the pasta rounds come out of the muddied water noticeably altered and in a near state of collapse suggesting fresh water yields better results. I set the gnocchi balls on a wire rack to drain and to keep warm in the oven. With two hours remaining before dinner, I turned to the salmon.
After preheating the oven to 430 degrees, I separated the shallots and mushrooms from the fish and sauté the vegetables in olive oil. Once a gravy formed in the pan, I transferred the vegetables to the freezer to remove their heat quickly. I also rescued the pastry rounds from the refrigerator where they had been cooling overnight. I pounded the rounds into a soften state so that the pastry would roll thin with ease. Once the pastry was rolled to twice the size of a filet, I topped the pastry with a layer of cooled shallots and mushrooms. Overtop, I placed the salmon skin side up and closed the pastry over the filet. Finally I flipped the wrapped filet onto a sheet of parchment paper which served to position the fish before and after cooking. Now, in my research, every recipe I read recommended removing the salmon skin, but also recall that most every recipe complained of a lack of flavor in the final dish. For the flavor’s sake, let’s keep the skin on.
I scored the three pastry-wrapped filets with long strokes about an inch and a half apart and painted the pastry with egg yolk whipped with a tablespoon of milk. I dusted the salmon en croute with kosher salt and put the trio in the oven at 5:45pm an hour before our guests were due to arrive. I turned the oven immediately down to 400 degrees and set the timer for 45 minutes. My husband noted my nervousness as I popped the main course into the oven but really, at that point, all major hurdles were officially cleared. Whew.
Joan Horn met me at the door to the opening event at the Presbyterian Church looking as relaxed as I hoped to feel in about 20 minutes when the salmon left the oven. The church’s transformation was now compete and the hall full of conversation. At ease and formed in large clusters of 10 or more people, the mood of the room was welcoming and content in its diverse company.
I found Home, Inc’s Executive Director Emily Seibel filling wine glasses—donated graciously by the Emporium—for her guests and flanked by two of her deputies, Beth Bridgeman and Joan Horn, each making sure new arrivals were brought into the expanding fold.
Back at our house, our guests arrived just before 7pm and settled in the living room around the fireplace brought to roaring life by my husband. Its added warmth was gratuitous in a way. The group of eight good friends—not six! eight—admitted that they insisted on not being separated for dinner. Ready, we happily received them all knowing many as neighbors…the very people that we visited the night before in our trick-or-treating.
Great friends with each other and graciously ready to be pleased, their company was the best part of the evening—one already filled with satisfying morsels including, yes, the salmon en croute which came out wonderful in the end. Thank the angels.