Project Food Blog challenge number three is to host a luxurious dinner party where our guests will discover new tastes and exotic flavors.
Oh, how I agonized over this challenge. I spent days trying to figure out what I’d make if I advanced to round three (and thank you to those who helped me do so!). I did some research, and ultimately settled on roasting a whole suckling pig. This challenge happens to coincide with our 7th wedding anniversary (and 10th year together, but who’s counting?), and what better way to commemorate our abiding love than with a bit of nose-to-tail dining? Traditionally, suckling pig has been served in many cultures as a symbol of luxury. Slaughtering a young swine was a big sacrifice – were you to let it grow to its adult size, you’d have a lot more meat and could feed a lot more people. You would only consume the suckling pig in the most special of circumstances.
I decided to keep the guest list fairly intimate. I think we often neglect luxury when it comes to family – sure, we’ll spend all day cooking up an elaborate feast for a big party with friends and acquaintances, but how often do we really splurge for our immediate family? We invited my husband’s brother (whose 40th birthday was also this weekend) and his family to join us, but they had a change of plans at the last minute (literally four hours before dinner was supposed to start), so it ended up being just me, my mother, my husband, D, and the kids. In the end, I think that made it even more special.
I descend from a long line of true southern barbecue masters – men and women who relish in the process of spending hours on end perfectly slow-cooking a piece of meat over a low fire. My mother’s father – my grandfather – was famous for his barbecue ribs, chickens and brisket. He learned the craft from his father and from the men who worked the land on which he grew up. Our summer family reunions were almost always accompanied by pit-roasted whole hogs and goats.
Where was I going to find a whole pig in Atlanta on such short notice, though? I scoured the internet, until I came across a source at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market
. The folks at Porky Pig Market – one of several meat vendors at the Curb Market – were super helpful and extremely accommodating. They even validated my parking.
I got a good laugh out of my experience when I went to pick up the pig. I drove down on Thursday during my lunch hour, so I was dressed in heels and slacks. When I explained to the proprietor that I was picking up the whole pig that I’d phoned to inquire about earlier, this man standing at the counter next to me looked me up and down, and asked “Who’s gonna cook it for you?” I smiled and said, “I’m gonna cook it.” He peered at me skeptically and asked, “Where you from?” I answered, “Well, I grew up here, but I was born in Mississippi.” He laughed, looking relieved, and said “Yeah – you know how to cook a pig.”
The thing about dinner parties is you can’t just have one dish. I couldn’t just serve up a pig on a platter and nothing else. The pig might be the centerpiece, but you’ve got to have some complimentary side dishes to go along with it.
My menu was made up of three courses: Appetizers and Aperitif
, which consisted of Shrimp and House-made Andouille Skewers
, Fire Roasted Sweet Peppers
and a Pimm’s Cup Cocktail
(cherry cream soda for the kids); Entree and Wine Pairing
which consisted of Slow Roasted Whole Suckling Pig
, Fennel and Apple Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
, Caramelized Acorn Squash
and Opala Vinho Verde
; Dessert and Coffee
consisted of S’mores with House-made Marshmallows
, Anniversary Cake
, and Grand Marnier Spiked Coffee
Successful menu execution takes thoughtful planning. You have to determine which things you can make ahead, and which things must be done “a la minute.” When planning a dinner party, I prefer to choose dishes that can be prepped a day or two ahead of time, and then simply finished the day of. That way, you’re not completely harried and stressed trying to get everything done on the day of the party. In this case, I was able to prep most everything on Thursday and Friday, and the only thing I had to worry about was cooking the squash and grilling the peppers and skewers at the last minute (the pig slow cooked overnight in the oven
and finished on the grill on Saturday – easy peasy).
We began the evening on the deck with appetizers – savoring the smoky spice of the House-made Andouille and the briny ocean flavor of the shrimp – it was like gumbo or jambalaya on a stick. It paired nicely with the sweet peppers and the even sweeter, but oh-so-refreshing, Pimms Cup Cocktail. Our five-year-old, P, was thrilled to be introduced to a fizzy Cherry Cream Soda as a special treat.
Dinner was next, and we sat down to a simple table adorned with white linens. Vinho Verde, a slightly fizzy Portuguese dry white wine, was served in humble jelly jars. The food spoke for itself – succulent suckling pig, crisp fennel and apple salad, and beautifully caramelized acorn squash all came together for a wonderful anniversary feast.
After dinner, as we were all working together to clear the table and put away the uneaten food, we took time to fully explore the head of the pig (we’d left it intact for effect during dinner). We sampled bits from the nape of his neck, the cheeks, the tongue (yum, by the way) and even the brain (not so much our favorite). As we pulled meat from various parts of his body, it was an interesting lesson in anatomy and butchery. To see where the tenderloin comes from, and bacon and boston butt, gives you a greater appreciation for where your food originates. And for your kids to see it in that context – to understand that meat comes from animals that were once alive, and not just from cello-packs in the grocery store – is a great learning experience.
We finished the evening with dessert and coffee in front of the fire. If you’ve never toasted homemade marshmallows, I highly recommend you get right on it. It’s a truly magical experience – nothing like those rubbery commercial marshmallows you buy in the store. The outside turns into a hard candy shell, and the inside is soft to the point of being a creamy liquid delight. Paired with chocolate and graham crackers, it elevates the simple S’mores to luxury status. Since we were going all out, we also had cake and Grand Marnier spiked coffee to round out the meal.
I have to say, it felt good to indulge with my family. In this day and age, when we spend so much time constantly on the go, we don’t often take the time to tell the ones we love how much they mean to us. To sit down to a finely dressed table and take the time to savor decadent foods with the people that mean the most to you, that is the ultimate luxury.
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Fennel and Apple Salad
2 fennel bulbs, finely shredded
2 apples, thinly sliced
1 Tablespoon dijon mustard
1 Tablespoon honey
Juice from one lemon
1/3 cup grapeseed oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
Combine fennel, apples, mustard, honey, lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper in a zip-top bag and shake to combine. Allow to sit overnight in the fridge. To serve – arrange on a platter and top with toasted pumpkin seeds.
Caramelized Acorn Squash
4 acorn squash, halved and seeds and pulp removed
4 Tablespoons butter, divided into 8 portions
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tablespoons brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F. Place squash halves, cut side up, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper and place butter in the center. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until browned on top and cooked through. Remove the squash from the oven and sprinkle the tops with brown sugar. Turn the oven on broil, and place the squash back in the oven for 4 or 5 minutes, just until the sugar begins to caramelize and bubble. Watch carefully to avoid burning.