Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pot Luck Night at the Foster Harris House

How does one define the word guest?

It is Thursday night at the Foster Harris House in Little Washington, Virginia. Technically, the inn is “closed” for the evening, but I’ve booked an extended stay, and fortunately the MacPhersons have not yet kicked me out.

John and Diane have graciously invited me to join them and several friends for a night of food and wine. It promise to be a taste of what daily life is like in this “fertile crescent” region of Virginia that includes farms, vineyards, dairies and a world-famous restaurant.

I knock on the door at the end of the dining room marked “private” and John MacPherson welcomes me into the kitchen. He has shed his chef’s uniform, worn each morning, and is instead wearing a party shirt covered by a kitchen apron. An assortment of ripe red tomatoes and bunches of green basil have been placed on the counter.

The plan is that I will serve as “sous chef” for the meal. I am both intrigued and nervous. I welcome the opportunity to observe John – a highly intuitive chef – in action. I tend to be a “by-the-book” follower of the recipe and I’ve been trying to loosen up my approach to cooking and go with my instincts. So, I’m anxious to see how John operates. Yet, there is nothing so humbling as teaming up with “a natural” in the kitchen. Your bad habits tend to get exposed very quickly. But while there are culinary tasks at hand, it is also a special treat. I do a lot of traveling, and to have an invitation to dinner from the innkeepers is quite rare. John hands me a Foster Harris House apron and sets me up with a chopping station.

“Here’s what I had in mind,” he explains. The menu will be summer at its most glorious – seared duck breasts with a reduction of champagne and white and yellow peaches, vine-ripe tomatoes stuffed with fresh Italian burrata cheese and breadcrumbs and drizzled with basil vinaigrette, and roasted fingerling potatoes. The peaches and herbs are from the Foster Harris House kitchen garden and the tomatoes are from the nearby organic farm. John explains that he usually prepares the duck with a cherry sauce, but the peaches are abundant, so he thought we’d try something different.

I gulp. Already we’re improvising and we haven’t started to cook. “Where’s the recipe??” screams my inner control freak. But, then, John pours me a glass of cold Riesling, and my imagined stress starts to dissipate.

I tackle the tomato assignment and begin carving the tops off and hollowing them out. With the tomatoes prepped, I move on to the basil vinaigrette. John gives me instructions – some oil, some vinegar, and heaps of basil from the garden. Maybe some lemon juice to make it bright. He pulls seven small white ceramic pitchers from the cabinet. I need to make enough so each guest has some to pour over their baked tomato.

Okay. No measurements. Just ingredients. I can handle this. I rev up the blender and get to work, creating an emulsion with the oil and vinegar and dropping handfuls of basil into the device. In my mind, I’m trying to remember the formula for perfectly balanced vinaigrette, and I have no idea how much basil I will need.

At this point, Bill and Joanne arrive, friends of the MacPhersons who were their first guests for the Tour D’Epicure, their series of Virginia cycling adventures. Bill is watching me fanatically work the blender. “Are you going to pulverize everything in this kitchen?” he asks only somewhat facetiously. Sherri and Kevin arrive. They are the innkeepers at the Hopkins Ordinary in nearby Sperryville, Virginia. Sherri brings a homemade ice cream pie made with goat’s milk, and Kevin offers fresh goat cheese he made himself. Sherri and Kevin had worked in the not-for-profit world before opening the Hopkins Ordinary. I talk cheese with Kevin as I continue to work the blender, although the whir is slightly distracting. Finally, I have enough vinaigrette to fill the mini-pitchers. It is a vibrant emerald green color and tastes pretty snappy. Don’t ask for the recipe. I don’t remember it.

John prepares the duck breasts. At this point, it is occurring to me that this is kind of a weekly ritual at the Foster Harris House. Duck on a Thursday night? Don’t you want to just move in? I chop the peaches, even though removing pits from stone fruit is not my strongest skill. Nobody seems to mind and it all simmers into a luscious, golden puree.

John and Kevin are about to plate the meal and he sends me to the garden to pick a handful of lemon thyme. It all smells the same to me, and for one comical moment, I am crouched in the garden with my nose in the herbs trying to pick out the lemon scent.

The gentlemen work as a team, and within seconds the white plates are perfectly adorned. I grab two plates and John stops me. “Take off your apron,” he says. “It’s time to relax.”

We dine on the patio as the sun goes down, in the shadow of an ancient magnolia tree. Everyone raises their glass in a toast to the chefs. There are several excellent bottles of wine on the table, and the food tastes so satisfying because it is truly a community meal in which we’ve all played a part, from the ingredients, to the preparation, to the conversation.

As we are clearing the dishes, Diane says suddenly, “I forgot to turn down your bed!” Morning coffee and the precision turn down service in the evening are all part of the complete experience at the Foster Harris House.

“What? Does that mean no chocolate on my pillow tonight?” I ask.

Diane gives me a hug as I exit the kitchen. “Tomorrow will be 83 degrees and sunny,” she says. “The chocolates are in the drawer at the top of the landing.”

At this point, I realize I have transcended what it means to be a guest at the Foster Harris House and am now an honorary member of the household and their extended epicurean community.

Recently I traveled through the Virginia countryside, discovering the local food, history and hospitality of what is called “the birthplace of the nation.” Pot Luck Night at the Foster Harris House took place on Thursday, August 21, 2008.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Kathy said...

This is my favorite post of your Virginia trip so far. And I can really identify with "where is the recipe!" Thanks for a good chuckle to start off my day.

veron said...

I have to laugh at 'Where's the recipe' panic mode. Looks like you did fabulous. John and Diane sound like very gracious hosts and can't wait to pay them a visit!

veron said...

Okay, now you've done it. I just made reservations at the Foster Harris house for the Thanksgiving weekend and dinner at the Inn at little washington that Friday. No macaron orders that weekend!

Giff said...

marvelous story :)

Kalyn said...

You are just having too much fun! I'm going to go visit Lydia in a few weeks and I hope we can have half as much good food as you've been having.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

So glad you are getting over your devotion to recipes -- there's nothing more fun than winging it in the kitchen, unless it's winging it in a chef's kitchen!

JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

What a fantabulous trip you are having! This must have been quite and experience!

Rochelle R. said...

I checked out their web site- what a lovely and elegant place. I am trying to get away from the need to always follow a recipe exactly. So far only a couple of disasters :)

~~louise~~ said...

It's official. I'm in a Virginia state of mind and it's all your fault.

Welcome to the world of "Don’t ask for the recipe. I don’t remember it" once there, you may never want to leave...

Maryann said...

This sounds wonderful, TW!

Cakespy said...

Can we please be packed in your suitcase next time? :-) I have loved reading about your recent travels. Your writing really takes me right there, it's fantastic! The "seared duck breasts with a reduction of champagne and white and yellow peaches"...wow!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

Kathy - happy to start your day with a smile!

Veron - I thought the duck would appeal to you! And, when you get to the Foster Harris House, tell them T.W. sent you!

Giff - Many thanks!

Kalyn - I would love to have dinner with you and Lydia - that would be a fun story!

Lydia - I don't know that winging it is quite in my DNA, but I'm getting better!

Jenn - I really loved the whole community aspect of the food and the meal.

Rochelle - As I've worked with my organic vegetables this summer, I've gotten better at improvising.

Louise - I take full responsibility for your Virginia state of mind!

Maryann - I could have moved in - but I think the key is take that experience and try and apply it at home.

Hi Cakespy - Thanks so much! You have a guaranteed ticket in my suitcase!

Tiffany said...

What a delicious sounding meal, and such a treat to be able to act as sous chef! What a fun memory for you!

Meg said...

What a wonderful post! The meal looks delicious!

Susan from Food Blogga said...

I really enjoyed this post, TW. What a lovely memory for you to have now.