A Birthday Party for the U.S. Navy

After sixteen plus months of regularly hosting receptions for 30 to 40 people in my home, I think I’ve gotten my routine down pact.  I started out gung-ho believing that every bite sized morsel had to be home made (by me!), each item had to be garnished to a standard that Martha Stewart would approve of, and all of the food and decor had be themed to whatever the occasion may be.  Add in the difficulties of trying to use my American recipes to create food with ingredients that are either non-existant or extremely difficult to find in Albania and my stress level leading up to these events was out of control.  After one particularly stressful dinner that ended with my laying prone on the kitchen floor muttering the words “never again, never again”, we started getting our events catered.  Fortunately for us, catering is a relatively inexpensive proposition in Albania.  Unfortunately for us, you get what you pay for and even after numerous go arounds with restaurants about what I wanted and didn’t want to see on the table, I found the food seriously lacking in both quality and variety.  Besides, it is impossible to serve “representational American food” when everything resembles a byrek, qofta (Albanian sausage), or twice killed meat kabob.  So it was back to my cooking for each event.

Fast forward a year and I have a new strategy that works with my 30 hour plus work week, spending quality time with Sidney, remaining sane, and yes, having some elusive time to myself.  Earlier this week we hosted a reception in honor of the 237th birthday of the U.S. Navy.  The guest list included Albanian Naval Officers and active duty and retired U.S. Navy and Marine personnel who are currently serving in some capacity in Albania.  This was going to be an all male event (that is a conversation for another blog entry) where big thirsts and even bigger appetites ruled.

So what was on the  menu?  The food played homage to both the United States, Albania, and the Albanian officers who have spent time in America.

HINT ONE:  Tasty, easy, and feeds a lot of people.  I dug into my deep freeze and pulled out a spiral cut ham imported from Virginia to Albania via Naples, Italy.  Not only is ham always a hit, a spiral cut ham is a novelty in Albania.  Plus a single ham is easy to prepare (just pop it in the oven for a few hours), it feeds a lot of people, and being pre-sliced, it essentially serves itself.  What could be better?

Deviled Eggs

HINT TWO:  Not everything needs to be hot.  I used to think that every dish needed to be served piping hot out of the oven.  Unless you have a professional kitchen and an endless supply of help, when you are trying to serve forty people a variety of dishes this is an impossible task.  I used to drive myself nuts trying to time numerous dishes being cooked at differing temperatures in my one European sized oven. Not any more.  I’ve now come to terms the fact that not only are cold and room temperature dishes acceptable, they just make sense.  Regardless of our guest list, deviled eggs are a hit.  They are the perfect two-bite appetizers that can also be made in mass quantities ahead of time.  They are now a standing item on my menu so if you are like my egg despising husband, that is one dish you will have to avoid at our receptions.

Salad on a stick

HINT THREE:  Skewers are your friend.  You never think about how handy skewers are until you try to manage the logistics of cocktail plates, forks, and serving utensils for a crowd.  For some reason, bamboo skewers of all sizes are readily available in Albania.  (Of course, this is the same culture that considers the presence of toothpicks-and using them- proper etiquette at every dining table).  I’ve become a huge fan of using skewers to not only assemble but to serve food since it does away with the need to use forks.  We are fortunate to be able to find an endless supply of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes at ridiculously inexpensive prices in the local markets. (These are usually the only items I can be guaranteed to find).  Add in the fresh basil from my garden and Caprese salad skewers are another reception table favorite.  They taste good, are so easy to make, and can be assembled ahead of time.

Moroccan veal kabobs
with Kos

HINT FOUR:  Provide the unexpected.  I tend to find Albanian cuisine to lack a depth of flavor.  Albanians tend to say that something is spicy but to me it usually tastes one dimensional and salty.  I love robust flavors and try to subtly introduce them to my buffet tables.  For this reception I took a usual standby- grilled veal skewers (not over cooked) and kicked them up a notch with a Moroccan marinade. The combination of garlic, olive oil, lemon and a healthy dose of cumin smelled heavenly.  I was sure the Albanians in the crowd would shy away from such bold flavors leaving me with plenty of leftovers.  Alas, every single kabob was eaten with gusto and I never got to try one. Perhaps they were so popular because I paired them with the Albanian standby of my own version of kos (think a combination of Greek yogurt and sour cream) that was doctored with some additional spices.  The same goes for the sauteed mushrooms I served.  Albanians love their mushrooms but I sauteed mine in white wine and garlic, added some lemon juice and thyme and the bowl was empty in a matter of minutes.

HINT FIVE:  It is o.k. to buy things pre-made.  Just because I love to cook doesn’t mean I have to make everything.  Ala the Food Network’s Sandra Lee, I’ve started to take a store bought basic and doctor it up a bit to make it my own.  (I used to despise this her show when we were back in the States but I’ve since come to see the wisdom of some of her ways).  For this reception I took the afore mentioned store bought kos, added some freshly ground pepper and sea salt, a dash of Tabasco sauce, some fresh minced garlic and thinly sliced cucumbers, drizzled on a bit of local olive oil, and I had an accompaniment for my veal skewers that even Grandma would have been proud of.  After my pan of brownies turned into a crumbly mess (I have no idea why since this is my go-to recipe) and my motivation to make homemade biscotti faded, I bought a variety of cookies from the local French bakery.  They looked perfect, tasted good, and all I had to do was plate them.  A year ago I would have shuddered at the mere suggestion of such a dessert but now it just made sense.

HINT SIX:  Lots of drinks.  This goes without saying.  Fill a room with sailors and Marines and the drinks will flow.  Surprisingly, however; we tend to serve more fruit juice and water than we do beer and wine.  And once the drinks stop flowing, the guests leave.  Its the perfect subliminal message that the party is over and most people get it.

All in all I think this birthday party was a success on many fronts.  Judging by the empty platters the food was a hit.  I didn’t experience the usual amount of stress I have leading up to an event.  When my dessert flopped I just shrugged it off and moved onto “Plan B”without giving it a second thought.  A year ago I would have panicked when the table emptied of food; now I took it as a sign that the guests were well fed and enjoyed what they ate.  Now I just have to remember this formula for the next time we host a reception.

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