Ah… The sights and sounds of summer. Why is it that as August comes nearer to the end we start savoring all those precious moments? We bathe in still mornings with the cool air, feel the green grass fresh with morning dew. In the evening we sit on the porch to listen to the musical chirping of the tree frogs while letting our eyes drink in the deep, rich pink and yellow hues that beam through magical sunsets. The reminders that Autumn is approaching is all around, the vibrant flowers we planted in spring have grown leggy and their foliage has begun to thin out, a few stray leaves fall from the oak trees onto my still green grass. As dusk approaches we trade the enjoyment of experiencing the starlight glow of armies of fireflies blinking in the fields for the handy work of the spiders who spin their delicate webs among the oaks and maples branches.
Perhaps it is a wake-up call that we realize we will soon plunge into the cold depths of winter and for several months when all will be still. We sense the length of daylight hours dwindling and we long for an extension of this entire season. We want to delight in every outdoor activity, make them count so that we can store it away as memories of a wonderful summer.
When the opportunity arose for us to meet up with an amazing chef at her beautiful home for an Alfresco cooking and dining experience we could not pass this up. To cook outside in the early evening and dine under the setting sun was simply divine! We arrived at 6:00 PM through the rod iron gates that lead to the backyard so see that we would be dining poolside.
The tables were set with colorful patterns and centerpieces of made up of fresh flowers and an eclectic collection of lanterns that were yet to be lit.
Our dining service was set up with big white plates and heavy flatware. If you are a foodie this is something you can truly appreciate. Many of the finest restaurants in the world show respect for the food by serving it on a great vessel and allowing you to feel the heaviness of good utensils as you hold to slice and bring the food to your mouth.
As our chef-hostess, Preeti Waas was greeting all of her guests, I reached in and just gave her a hug. I meet lots of chefs in my line of work however tonight I felt as if I had met a kindred spirit, someone who really understands and appreciates food. It turns out I was right, as I explain her food culinary finesse and cooking style, this will become evident. She and her husband introduced the guests to each other and to her assistant who was dressed in a red apron for the evening. To the front of the pool was a large outdoor kitchen with a well-lit covering. This area had two very long granite countertops. One was against a wall with a large sink, dishwasher, and cabinets. The other countertop was a “working and eating” space with built-in cabinets on the backside for other storage.
Pretti (pronounced pretty) is of Indian descent. She is a natural around people, she has a warm and friendly personality. She commands and controls a class, her vast culinary experience doing so showed. She has taught at many cooking schools such as Sur La Table and is an adjunct professor at the Wake County Technical College’s culinary program. She gathered us all and gave us some instructions on food safety, especially handwashing and knife skills. She explained that she would be teaching this particular class as if we all were all beginners, so she would be able to address multiple learning levels.
Our menu for the evening was to be simple, rustic and flavorful
We started by making and assembling a Panzanella Salad. We used a loaf of rosemary bread and rubbed it with olive oil (I accomplished this by pouring the olive oil onto one bread slice and then rubbing it onto another slice) then we placed them on the grill for a char.
Preeti assigned the task of cutting the vegetables and taught the group how to let the knife do the work.
One of the guests shared his technique for cutting an onion, (which I am totally going to try). He cut the onion into two without peeling, (like I do but he did not cut the tail off). He held the tail and sliced sideways into the onion half a couple of times and then sliced. Instead of the onion yielding slices it gave away to tiny more uniformed bits.
Two things really stood out in this salad, one was the grilled rosemary bread since the spice added so much flavor and the second was the grilled tomatoes and peaches.
By grilling the tomatoes and peaches it added another dimension of flavor and sweetness. The salad was mixed with a simple vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar, garlic, Dijon mustard, salt, and olive oil. Preeti owns a brand called Sugar and Spice and I could see that brand and her style showing up already in this first course.
We were all hungry by now, and since this was an alfresco style dining experience meant to be fun and light, Preeti instructed us to just gather around the counter to eat our salad.
Standing around the counter while eating added a casualness of the evening that made us feel as if we were simply hanging out at a friends kitchen.
Next up was preparing the chicken breast for the meal. Pretti had the pieces already trimmed and all the excess fat removed. She instructed us to let them sit for 45 minutes minimum to warm up a bit. When they were ready for grilling all that was needed was a simple prep of lots of salt and olive oil. As she enlightened the group about the proper temperature to cook meat, she sprayed the already hot grill generously with cooking spray and let it flame up. She explained that by doing this she basically prevents the grill from flaming up on the chicken. As the chicken was turned, lemon juice was squeezed onto the cooked side to add flavor and moisture.
The chicken was going to be served with a gremolata sauce, similar to chimichurri. This is a very simple and fresh recipe that requires just a few ingredients and can be served cold. It is made with chopped parsley, garlic, lemon zest, and olive oil. It was the perfect topping for this grilled chicken.
When the chicken was at the proper temperature, Preeti instructed us to remove the chicken and let it rest. As accompaniments to the main dish we grilled a bright green broccolini and two kinds of pre-prepared polenta cakes, one was a homemade polenta and the other was a Trader Joe’s purchase.
These were placed on aluminum foil in the hot grill to protect the items from falling in. The aluminum foil will still allow for the grill to turn parts of the item a brownish color which gives it that smokey flavor, this is what is called “char”. We drizzled olive oil, salt, and a bit of lemon for flavor on the broccolini.
The cooked food was arranged on large beautiful platters with serving utensils. Now we eat! We all took our plates to the counter and we served ourselves family style. Then we sat at the tables to taste the creations that we made. Preeti’s polenta cakes were amazingly creamy and the gremolata added a brightness to the chicken that made you want to take another bite. The broccolini gave a smokey bitterness to the meal that complimented the chicken and offset the sweetness of the polenta.
While the guests filled their bellies and satisfied their palates, Preeti prepared the dessert made of fresh grilled peaches, with a honey caramel sauce.
She made the sauce by adding honey and butter and reducing it down. Her culinary assistant served it in a bowl of vanilla ice cream on the bottom, topped the grilled peaches with some edible flowers and then drizzled the sauce over the top. Preeti encouraged us to add some savory flavors into the sweetness with some basil or rosemary. Wow, that changed the entire dish to a more sophisticated flavor!
After dessert we all got to taste some of her homemade jams. These are not the preserves you can buy in a supermarket. Her jams are sweet and savory together as you can tell is her style, ergo Sugar and Spice. She sells these jams online https://www.sugarandspicekit.com/and at the MidTown Farmers Market http://midtownfarmers.com/.
It was such an enjoyable evening given by gracious hosts. We cooked alongside and dined with the nicest people. We all learned something and enjoyed a full meal! It was a perfect event for the near end of summer. We will have this memory of sitting poolside, listening to the tree frogs, and watching the sunset as we satiated our palates with sweet and savory deliciousness.
Thank you to our gracious hosts for the evening, Preeti Waas and her husband John. I would like to thank all my fellow attendees who put up with all my camera antics and having to wait to eat in order to allow me to snap pictures of the food, you were all good sports!