Project Fruit Tree & Adventures in an Urban Garden of Eden

Sous Vide striploin, served on a bed of fresh tomatoes, plums and garnished with puffed wild rice.

Sous Vide striploin, served on a bed of fresh tomatoes, plums and garnished with puffed wild rice.

Last weekend marked the third year that my husband, my friend DB and I cooked for a party of 40 to help benefit the Portland Fruit Tree Project. The PFTP does a series of “Orchard Banquets” every summer to raise money and for the past three years they’ve asked my husband to donate his time by heading one of the dinners.

This year, like last year, we lucked out and had the honor of cooking our dinner at Tabor Tilth, a crazy, magical dream in urban gardening. (If you want your mind blown, click this link to watch a video about the garden, hosted by the woman who owns it.)

My husband, because he is constantly ambitious with his cooking, always dreams up amazing menus for this dinner, which has become the event that DB and I look forward to helping him with the most.

And clearly other people look forward to it too. Many people from last year’s dinner attended this one and we heard from staff that our series sold out a month in advance. I guess the word has gotten out that my husband throws down when it comes to food!

Here’s some pictures from last Sunday’s soiree…It should also be mentioned that many of the produce used came from Tabor Tilth, some of which we foraged for the day of the dinner. Nothing beats the taste of freshly picked fruits and veggies!

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Dinner in the Garden of Eden: Portland’s Tabor Tilth

A few days ago, I posted about a dinner that I helped my husband prepare as part of the Portland Fruit Tree Project’s Orchard Series. It was a pretty amazing experience — as you can imagine when you’re cooking for 40 people in an urban garden and this is the kitchen.

The best place to cook is outside!

And the spread my husband put together was pretty spectacular. It started with some passed appetizers…

Watermelon and wasabi with Oregon elderflowers

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Crudités in Clay: An Unexpected Appetizer in an Urban Eden

Being married to my husband is like having a second job sometimes. Not the actual marriage part (that part is fun and games!) but the part where I am his go-to sous chef for off-site events. I’m definitely not complaining — I occasionally get paid and if I don’t, well, I always get to drink plenty of wine which is just as good in my book.

So, just like his pig roast extravaganza, I jumped at the chance to help him do a multi-coursed dinner to benefit the Portland Fruit Tree Project. You can read more about the project here, but the basic premise is to educate people about urban gardening and to help give those less fortunate access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The 35-person dinner party was held at a house in SE Portland, known as Tabor Tilth. The woman who lives there grows so many different things in her front and back yards it’s actually overwhelming…and overflowing. She raises rabbits, grows corn, keeps bees, has more tomato plants than I could count, and even has a mullberry tree all on her 1/5 acre of residential property. She has a truly fascinating online video in which she describes her very thoughtful and meticulous system for planting and composting (she uses some very unique manure in her yard!).

To complement her creative urban gardening, my husband served dishes like “compost” beef (rubbed in coffee grounds and herbs) and a mullberry sorbet with lime salt. But my absolute favorite thing he came up with was these planters. Part centerpiece, part appetizer, each potted plant harbored hidden surprises.

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Soirées & Snacks: My favorite thing about parties is the food…

There is nothing I love more than party food. Something about food on toothpicks or passed nibbles on tiny plates just calls out to me. Everything is more fun when it’s on pretty platters and available for grazing. I love having a glass of wine in one hand and a plate brimming with appetizers in the other.

Posting all the food pictures from my birthday party a few weeks ago inspired me to go back through last year’s birthday photos. My first thought upon seeing them was hmm, I need to plan another party very soon.

This is a very dangerous thought — one, that if given a chance, would devour all of my productive energy for months. So I decided to write a bit about party food in an effort to keep the demons at bay.

First up are some delicious hors d’oeuvres. Last year, I did a variation of pub trivia for my birthday party, which was held at my favorite local bar, The Lion’s Eye Tavern. After the quiz portion was done, we walked back to my place to soak up the beer with a whole lot of food.

Greek-salad skewers -- tomatoes, feta, cucmbers and olivesIn planning my menu, I was heavily influenced by these Greek salad skewers I had seen in an issue of Food & Wine and wanted to do a ton of them in a variety of flavors. I bought a salami (whole, not sliced), pitted olives, cucumbers, sharp white cheddar, goat cheese and baby mozzarella balls, pickled pipparras and piquillo peppers, cherry tomatoes and pickled asparagus. Most of the stuff I was able to get at an upscale grocery store’s olive bar. They had so many great things that I just got a little of everything. Then I got to work putting them in assorted patterns on little bamboo skewers.

* Helpful hint: I used some feta too but the brand I bought was apparently too soft and so I had a hard time keeping it on the sticks. Instead I sliced the olives open and stuffed them with the cheese and then slid the whole thing on the skewer. *

The nice thing is there are so many choices, nobody has to pick off the things they don’t like — good for picky eaters as well as the lone vegetarian. Plus they are so colorful, they basically double as party decorations!

Next I needed some fun snack mixes, a nod to the pub theme I had developed. My mind went first to an Asian-style brittle recipe I had seen on Martha’s website. I had been dying to make it since it’s full of tasty morsels  — wasabi peas, various nuts and sesame sticks. It’s a little spicy and a little salty, altogether ideal for a post-pub party. I also wanted some pretzels but not just out of the bag, something a little more festive was required. Luckily, Martha had a recipe for Sweet and Spicy Pretzel Mix using pretzel sticks, almonds, cayenne and sugar. These were a cinch to make and very addictive. I had to remind myself to stay away from them until the party started!

Then I went searching for something more exciting than regular Chex Mix and found this awesome Maple & Soy Chex Mix recipe. It sounded perfect (the recipe even has some curry in it which really intrigued me) and I could tailor the components so I didn’t overlap too many ingredients — I used mainly Chex cereal (rice and corn), sesame sticks and toasted corn since I had already used so many nuts in the other two mixes.

I made a ton of each one of these mixes, thinking I’d have plenty of leftovers to enjoy afterwards, but they were quickly demolished by hungry guests. Which is a good indicator that these recipes are worth making again!

Other party food favorites of mine are, of course, anything on puff pastry as well as a simple old-fashioned charcuterie board, like the one below. I think my husband put this together one lazy Sunday for us to snack on when we didn’t feel like cooking.

I like offer up a few patés (you can usually buy some nice ones at an upscale butcher shop), some salami or prosciutto, some cheese, coarse-grain mustard and cornichons. This plate also has an all-time favorite of mine — a beet terrine made with goat cheese. Some day I will show you how to make this. It is so very good and so pretty.

Finally, here are a few more party nibbles my friend Ariel and I put together when we catered a housewarming party for my parents. We needed it to be relatively simple since we only had one day to prep, but I think we did a nice spread. Ariel had a recipe for a frittata that could be sliced up and I had been dreaming about this recipe for adorable mini mac-and-cheese bites. I used some larger macaroni noodles that I had on hand — in hindsight I should have bought some smaller ones since they might have worked better in the mini-muffin pan, but these still got rave reviews.

Spinach Frittata and Mini Mac’n’Cheeses

A veggie crudite garden

Mammoth cheese ball

The veggies were inspired by this Martha Stewart spread, where the crudite are arranged to look like they are in a garden. We just did ours in a big bowl, but Ariel worked some magic with those veggies and made them beautiful. We had an herb-filled buttermilk dressing for dipping, though you can use any salad dressing you have handy.

We also spent a good portion of the evening before the party making a laughably enormous cheese ball. I honestly don’t know how it happened, but it was larger than a softball. We started with some goat cheese (like maybe a pound, which might explain why it was so huge) mixed with cream cheese and then threw in store-bought pesto plus extra pine nuts and basil. I think we had half of this sucker left over, but it was a great post-party snack. I even used some with cooked pasta as an easy creamy and very cheesy sauce.

So basic rules for party food: cheese should always be present, food that can be eaten with one hand is ideal and anything on a stick will make people happy.

Now go forth and party on!