This month, my father turns 80. To reach one's eighth decade (correction, thanks to the quick mind of Deb Robson: he's entering his ninth decade) seems to me a milestone very much worth celebrating. My dad always says he has everything he needs, but I know he loves a family gathering, especially if it involves food. He and my mom live two and a half hours away over the mountains, but right now they are traveling in Norway with my brother, sister-in-law, and youngest niece. The latter three live far away in Washington state, but they're stopping in Colorado on their way back home to visit my sister-in-law's dad. So for something like 48 hours I have a chance to gather this part of my family for a birthday celebration to honor Dad's upcoming 80th, and I'm grabbing that moment.
I'm planning a picnic, most of which I'll prepare here at home. Then Richard and I will pack up this summer meal for eight, and drive it over three mountain passes and down onto the Plains and into the city, where we'll pick up my parents, and carry them to the town an hour away where the rest of the family will be. There we'll celebrate my Dad's life and his eighty years.
I'll be away at a writing workshop until the day before the picnic, so it's going to be a bit of a challenge to prepare all the food. I realize that I could simply buy some picnic food at the deli of the grocery store I regularly walk to, and pay their bakery to create a cake, but making the food myself is an act of love. If I'm honoring my dad and his life, what better way to do it than cooking something special to share? And if I'm going to cook something special, I want it to include a taste of our terroir, our own soil, with food we've grown right here in our garden.
So I've come up with a menu rooted in very local food.
It starts with shrimp, which do not come from our valley, but will be delicious dipped in a spicy cilantro-mint chutney made with herbs we grew ourselves, and green chiles from a farm downriver.
Then we'll tuck into the main dish, a quinoa salad (the quinoa, that marvelous nutty and earthy grain from the Andes, grown by an organic farmer in the San Luis Valley, just south of us). It'll be topped with steamed beets and whole sugar snap peas picked fresh from our garden, and sprinkled with feta cheese and chopped walnuts. The combination of deep purple beets and bright green fresh peas will be spectacular, and the sweetness of beets and peas will be balanced by the salty feta, the earthy quinoa and the rich and slightly astringent walnuts.
Along with that I'll serve a simple tossed salad of mixed lettuces and other salad greens picked fresh from the garden and dressed with orange-infused olive oil (this from Stonehouse Olive Oils, an olive oil maker in California, which also isn't local, but the stuff is delicious and at least comes from this continent) and balsamic vinegar. The salad greens--Monet's Garden and French Market mixes from Rene's Garden Seeds--come in eye-pleasing combinations of smooth and ruffled and lacy and lobed, and a whole range of greens and burgundy and reds.
(I believe in food that is beautiful to look at, without being too contrived or fussy, so that it nurtures the spirit as well as the body.)
We'll have bread on the side, not Richard's beautiful sculptural loaves made with local organic whole wheat flower, but some bread made in the Denver area since Richard won't have a chance to bake with his two-day levain process between the time we get home and leave again for the picnic.
And for dessert, a cake--of course! I'll bake a sourdough chocolate cake with local eggs whose rich orange yolks show that the chickens have been outside, eating bugs as they naturally do. Instead of icing I'll top it with some of the eight quarts of fresh cherries that Richard pitted last weekend, and over those dark and juicy globes of fruit, a thick layer of creme fraiche, sweetened with honey from a beekeeper friend's hives and a bit of special aged port brought to us by visiting friends.
So we'll celebrate my father's 80th birthday with the gifts of food, family, and lots of love in the growing, cooking, and eating together.
(As always, the photos above are my own: a native blazingstar that seeded itself just inside the corrugated tin fence of our bedroom courtyard, my lettuce mix ready to harvest, and the climbing roses on the arbor Richard built me several Mother's Days ago.)