This summer Robin and I hosted a number of dinners for friends. The dinners were served at a small but comfortable table on our back deck. We called it Summer Dinners on the Deck. One of our guests said we should call the Dinners From Garden to Table. Robin liked that. I did too. It was fitting as much of the dinner was sourced from our vegetable and herb gardens.
The idea for the dinners sprouted while signing books at The Old Creek Ranch and Winery last winter. I was bouncing ideas off my friends and asked, “How would you respond to an invitation to dinner at my house where the food is fresh, free, and the service is amazing?”
“What’s the catch?” one of them said.
“No catch” I replied. “I just enjoy cooking and wonder what it would be like to create an informal restaurant experience on our back deck. Wouldn’t it be fun to be served a 4-course dinner in a comfortable outdoors environment?” My winery friends thought this was a wonderful idea.
When I returned home, I asked Robin what she thought. “When would you schedule these dinners?” she asked. “I’m thinking of scheduling them on Saturdays beginning this June,” I replied.
Robin then asked, “Who would you invite?”
“I’d like to invite two friends,” I said, “and ask them to bring two of their friends with them.” She countered with, “Why not just invite four of our friends?”
“Well,” I replied, “that’s actually the best part of this idea. I was thinking it would be fun to invite two people we know and then let them invite two people they know. That way, all four of our guests would be comfortable sitting with someone they know.”
“Would there be any charge?” Robin asked, to which I replied, “Nope! I’m thinking they could bring whatever they wanted to drink but other than that, we’d supply cold water, iced tea and a four-course dinner to die for.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” Robin said with a smile. “We get to see old friends and make new friends all at the same time! Let’s do it.”
So I sent out invitations to Summer Dinners on the Deck. As it turned out, the dinners spilled over into July and also August. A typical dinner began with guests showing up around 6 p.m. when it was still warm (if not hot) outside and leaving sometime after 10 p.m. when it had cooled down. If they brought wine or beer, I opened it, poured it into crystal glasses and brought it to them while Robin gave a tour of her vegetable garden and succulents.
While Robin showed our guests the backyard, I prepared fresh appetizers. When the invitees finished the garden tour and sat at the table, either a Mexican appetizer was waiting for them (fresh flour tortilla chips lightly fried with Pico de Gallo and guacamole) or an Italian appetizer (three different olives warmed in an excellent quality olive oil and served with lightly toasted focaccia bread).
Appetizers were followed by a fresh garden salad (chunks of avocado and tomato with herb-rubbed Oaxaca cheese) or a Caprese salad (stacked layers of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil). The entrees were either a generous slice of Lasagna Azteca (using corn tortillas instead of noodles with a red chile sauce instead of marinara) or a 3-inch square of Cheese & Tomato Pie. During one dinner, our nasturtiums were in full bloom so each of the plated entrees was served with an edible, and brightly colored, nasturtium flower.
For me, dessert was the best part of the night. I provided either chocolate-espresso cookies or twice-baked biscotti. As Robin and I served this last course we pulled up chairs and to talked with our friends. In addition, we had the chance to talk with their friends, who are now our friends too.
At some point during dessert I asked for feedback on the meal and, as a result, I learned a lot. I learned, for example, to make the extra effort to always use fresh ingredients. For one of the Lasagna Azteca dinners I didn’t like the barely edible fresh spinach at one of our local markets so I bought frozen, packaged spinach instead. That was a mistake. The flavor and consistency was adequate but it would have been excellent if the spinach had been fresh.
I learned that food has a tendency to burn if neglected. When I would linger too long at the table, Robin would come to me and say, “Stop telling stories and get your butt back in the kitchen before something burns.” Glad she did. Our friends were glad too.
I learned that mushrooms with Marsala wine were a bit sweet when paired with the savory Cheese & Tomato Pie. It was suggested that the mushrooms be savory. I’ve decided to use very dry Marsala next time. That would be a better pairing with the garlic, red pepper flakes and parsley in the mushroom dish. Good suggestion.
One of our friends also suggested changing the name of the Cheese & Tomato Pie to something that didn’t sound mediocre. As she said, “There’s nothing mediocre about this dish. It deserves to be celebrated with a better name.” Good suggestion. I’m still working on a more fitting name.
During the dinner on June 22nd we were surprised by fireworks at the Ojai Valley Inn. Robin and I and our guests enjoyed it. Our dog, Willow, not so much. She was shaking at the noise from the mortars and the burst of the firework shells in the sky. It was a beautiful display but we all agreed that it would have been more enjoyable if the City or the Inn (or both) had warned folks so that we could make sure our animals were safe.
One night, after our friends had left and all of the dishes were rinsed and in the dishwasher, Robin asked me “What did you like best about the dinners?” I was quick to reply, “Getting to know our guests better and laughing with them on the back deck as we traded stories.” “I liked that too,” she said. When asked if I would do this again, I replied, “Absolutely! Great food, great people, great fun. Why wouldn’t I?”
I can’t wait for next summer. I’m working on new menus. It’s gonna be fun.