The Liberty Rose Bed & Breakfast, one mile from beautiful Colonial Williamsburg, in this historic Virginia corridor, is a charming peaceful place to visit. The highlight for me, when I am lucky enough to spend any time there, are the gardens that cover an acre of wooded land. Secret places to sit, read, meditate, write, flowering trees that scent the air, and beautiful ground flowers and vines that compete for notice are everywhere. It is like a wonderland. I have been friends for several years now with Mike Farrell, the assistant innkeeper/cook/gardener there, and one thing we love to do together is cook and then eat delicious food. I was so happy to learn during my latest visit that the very first “Rose & Dine Dinner”, a special package which adds a gourmet dinner highlighting local meat, herbs, and produce to the traditional Bed & Breakfast offering of the inn, had been scheduled. The lucky couple, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, were very excited, putting their trust entirely in Mike’s choices for the 5 courses plus 2 amuse-bouches.
We started early in the day with an inventory of Mike’s extensive vegetable, herb, and flower garden. Noting what was in peak condition for cooking, we then made our way to the grocery store to pick up a few more things, and wound up the morning at The Cheese Shop in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square. We taste tested a few choices (we had to – really we did) and chose a washed rind cow’s milk cheese with a little bit of a bite, a bit of a tangy lingering finish on the tongue to serve as the bones of the cheese course, and a much stronger, smellier piece of soft pungent sheep’s milk cheese just for us, then headed back to the inn to begin cooking.
The first thing we do is caramelize fresh figs in a fragrant syrup of dark molasses, and red wine. These figs are fresh from the tree, and actually drip juice when their delicate skin is broken. Picked just yesterday morning after chasing one of the two fawns away who visit daily, waiting for ripe figs to drop, they are ripened to perfection. While we pick, the squirrel who also claims ownership watches proprietarily from a short distance away. In the kitchen, after they are washed, I slice them in half. The inside is a deep coral pink, yellow tinged with chartreuse surrounding it. They are sweet and soft and absolutely delicious. I scoop the fig halves up with my hands and then into the sweet liquid, and set it to simmering. It bubbles away for an hour or so, gradually becoming thicker and darker, sweeter and more fragrant, reducing down to a thick syrup, dark amber in color and complex in flavor. A shared taste tell us they will be perfect. I take them off the burner, spoon them into a bowl and set them aside to cool.
Mike’s task is to make the harissa for the beef. Harissa is northern African in origin; a wet spice paste, rubbed on the surface of the meat before roasting, made of toasted caraway seeds, smoked cumin seed, tomato paste, sugar, kosher salt, cracked black peppercorns, Sambal Olek, olive oil, powdered chilis, and of course whole garlic cloves. Much of the complex flavor of the harissa is due to the toasting of the caraway, and then smoking the cumin seeds in the pan with the lid on. The ingredients are all combined, and whirled together in the food processor. The flavor is deep and spicy and complicated, but open as well, asking For inclusion with something that balances it out. Like roasted meat. Like the local organic grass fed tri tip roast of beef that Mike has warming up on the counter. No marinade necessary. With the smell of the harissa in our noses, and the taste we are obligated to take on our tongue, we choose dishes and goblets, napkins and centerpiece, and make notes for assembly, timing, garnishing, and service of the courses.
Mike and I love to cook together. We read each other so well. We both know what needs to be done, and when, and can jump in and do it without any discussion, all our efforts oiled and geared to smooth accomplishment of the end goal – wonderful food – something we both understand and venerate. We taste and inhale and adjust and augment and try to bring it all forward as far as it can go. Until the next time. When we try to take it farther, after evaluation and research and reading and most importantly, eating and tasting anything and everything. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable mission to which we have devoted ourselves, and we both find joy in working on this together. And we laugh. And we drink wine while we cook, and we dance around the small kitchen, sliding by each other, avoiding collision, moving pots and hot pans from oven to burner, rapidly chopping spices and kale and onions and other ingredients, bringing good and interesting food to the level of a gift for our guests. I’m honored to be a part of this inaugural dinner.
The first dish we prepare is a little starter of cold dill soup. It’s a hot day, and this is just an introduction to the rest of the meal – both the flavors and the ambience we hope to provide. Mike waits until the last minute to cut the fresh herbs from the garden. This small serving of soup meant to be picked up and sipped directly from the delicate handmade Colonial Williamsburg “bullet dish”, smaller than a cupcake paper. We hope this little informality encourages our guests to relax and enjoy their anniversary, instead of feeling that they must be stiff and formal, even when the table is beautifully set, and the food beautifully and carefully presented. Food should be enjoyed and we hope they will as much as we do. The chilled soup is garnished with a fennel flower, still warm from the garden sun.
As I’ve learned while watching my son, a chef who has served huge groups of people complex dishes with wonderful organization and attention to detail, you don’t rest once a course is served. As soon as our guests are enjoying their soup, we assemble the cheese course. Long thin slices of the cheese are arranged on a plate, and the caramelized figs spooned out over them. A bit of the syrup dotted onto the plate. We garnish this course with some rose petals separated from the roses in the gardens. A rose integrated into the dinner seems entirely appropriate and a nod to the place where it is being prepared and served. We nibble on the rinds we trim from the cheese, and eat a fork full of figs from the pan, find the combination delicious, and then it’s time to prepare the salad course.
The salad is simple. We start with a base of baby arugula – slightly bitter, slightly nutty; a welcome cleansing astringency after the cheese and figs – some deep green baby spinach, trimmed segments of an orange dripping with juice, feathery shreds of locally gathered Lion’s Mane mushrooms, thin slices of baby sweet onions, and a scattering of purple coneflower petals from the flower garden. We want the components of the salad both to stand on their own, and work together as a whole, and don’t want it overwhelmed by an oily vinegar dressing. Mike asks for my thoughts, channels his good Argentine sensibilities, and makes a simple dressing of good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and I drizzle it lightly over the prepared plates. It’s a simple enhancement, and not a mask. A quick sprinkle of plum-infused toasted sesame seeds, brought back in our suitcase from a wonderful spice shop in Annecy, France, and the salad goes to the table. We eat a couple quick bites ourselves from the ingredients that wouldn’t fit on the plates for the guests – sadly, the oranges are gone – and agree that it is really good. And then we’re on to the pasta course.
In Mike’s late summer garden at The Liberty Rose, basil runs wild. And the logical conclusion when cooking from this extensive garden is to make a big batch of pesto with that beautiful basil. But at this time of the year, how do we make that something special and new? Mike suggests a “Rough Pesto,” and I think that sounds perfect. We begin by roasting some whole garlic in the oven, and then lightly heating some olive oil. Once the garlic is roasted, I squeeze the hot golden cloves out of the skins. With a fork I mash the garlic and whisk them into the warm oil. It smells heavenly, and I set it aside to infuse. We toast whole pignoli nuts in the oven, and Mike heats olive oil in a cast iron skillet for the gnocchi. He buys his handmade gnocchi at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and the difference in the flavor and texture from grocery store gnocchi is remarkable. He has already picked fresh Pesto Basil from the garden, and I remove the tiny leaves from the stems. Rather than boiling it, Mike pan sears his gnocchi in olive oil until it is hot and just taking on some color. It’s a good way to serve this course without enduring the heat of a big pot of boiling water on top of the stove, plus the flavor is different and much more interesting. Smoky, a little charred, and slightly nutty. Delicious. A handful of the hot gnocchi goes down on the plate. A drizzle of the garlicky oil goes over it. Some of the toasted pignolis, a scattering of freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a generous handful of the Pesto Basil leaves. A sprinkle of coarse salt and a grinding of black Tasmanian Pepper, also courtesy of that magical spice shop in Annecy, a gorgeous Thai Basil blossom for garnish, and the pasta course goes out. We have made a third plate for us to eat, and there is no sound other than mutual “Oh my god”s when we tuck into it. I may never make pesto in the food processor again. The textures of the gnocchi, the crunchy nuts, the whole leaf basil and the salty granular parmigiano all work together to make us very sorry indeed when our plate is empty. Absolutely delicious.
While the beef finishes roasting and rests under a tent of foil, we serve the second little amuse-bouche. A bit of a break between the gnocchi and the meat course, it gives our guests a chance to sit back, talk a little, breathe, pour a little more wine, and relax, because the best dinner isn’t just about the food. It’s about being with others and sharing and connecting. Time must be given for that as well. We scoop out small spoonfuls of goat’s milk ice cream, also purchased fresh from the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market, and spoon a drizzle of Russian rose petal preserves over the top. The combination of the tangy sweet earthiness of the ice cream with the delicately sweet and floral flavor of the rose petals preserved in a light sweet jelly, garnished with fresh chocolate mint leaves is swoon-worthy and Mike and I inhale the little bowlful we have prepared for ourselves. Delicious, and not nearly enough to satisfy us. That’s why there is no picture of this beautiful little treat. We couldn’t wait.
The meat course is ready now for plating and serving. We uncover the roast, done perfectly medium rare, and slice it up. The harissa has made a crust on the roasted beef, and also melded with the meat juices on the bottom of the baking pan. I reheat that on top of the stove, breaking up the big slices of red onion, now caramelized in the meat juices, that served as the roasting rack, and add a slug of red wine to the sizzling pan. Steam boils up as the wine flash boils and deglazes the pan. The smell is absolutely sublime, and the thick dark liquid now simmering in the pan will be quickly reduced, and spooned over the meat on the plates along with some of the roasted onion. We have already prepared and have set on the back burner of the stove a sauté of a chiffonade of fresh baby kale in olive oil, with garlic, onion, coarse salt, black pepper, vermouth, and pancetta. The vermouth and the garlic balances out and tempers the strong flavor of the kale, and the crispy browned bits of pancetta add a wonderful salty bacon-y note. The result is savory and full, and stands up well to the beef with the spicy harissa crust. We put a spoonful of the kale on the plate beside the beef. The final touch is a couple slices of fresh cold heirloom tomatoes, garnished with some of the Pesto Basil, and some ground Tasmanian pepper.
If you have only ever eaten red beefsteak tomatoes, or grocery store tomatoes, you owe it to yourself to seek out a grower of heirloom tomatoes (or grow some yourself) and see just how delicious a tomato can be. The flavors are so much better than those mass-produced tomatoes, no matter how red they might be. We have prepared a plate for us as well, and as soon as we can, we sample everything we’ve just served. It tastes amazing. And the response of the guests is extremely gratifying. Being told you have just served people the best and most adventurous food they’ve ever eaten, when they are also food lovers and seek out interesting and exciting dining experiences wherever they go, is deeply satisfying. Cooking for appreciative friends and family (or ourselves) is one thing. Cooking good food for paying guests is quite another. We are so happy they have enjoyed our work.
Because this day has been hot and humid, our guests decided to eat dinner inside, but with the setting of the sun, a small breeze has sprung up, and they have asked to have dessert and tea in the garden. The gardens of Liberty Rose, with little white lights strung over the low table and comfortable rocking chairs is the perfect place to end the day, and surrounded by the cool greenery of ferns, trees, and blooming potted flowers, they enjoy some moments of quiet conversation while we put the finishing touches on the dessert for the evening.
Mike has chosen a traditional Scottish layered dessert called a cranachan. Earlier in the day, hazelnuts were roughly chopped and placed in a mixing bowl along with two cups of grated bittersweet chocolate. Mike toasted organic steel-cut oats in the oven until it was golden brown and hot, and then added to the mixing bowl. As Mike stirred in the hot oats, a miraculous melting and melding occurred, and the bittersweet chocolate coated the nuts and the oats. We set it aside until this moment, when we retrieve the bowl from the pantry, and break up the mixture into crunchy clusters of nutty chocolate. Meanwhile, Mike whips heavy cream into white pillows, and then beats in crème fraîche, making it taste amazingly buttery and impossibly rich. A little whisky is folded into the whipped cream – a traditional part of the recipe – and then the components layered into a tall glass. The result, garnished with a big fat fresh blackberry, is absolutely rich tasting and delicious, yet light and satisfying. It isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and is just right to finish off the meal we have served. We agree we will never eat whipped cream again unless it also includes crème fraîche. And whisky.
It was such an honor for me to be part of this dinner, part of the preparation, part of the celebration of a milestone anniversary for a very nice couple I didn’t even meet until just before dessert was served. Their gratitude and happiness was soul-satisfying, and the best reward for our hard work. The chance to plan and execute this intricate dance with a friend who feels the same about food and cooking and feeding people was so much fun, despite our bone-deep exhaustion. Food is primal. The connection that established between cooks and the people they feed has the potential to be wonderful, amazing, enriching. But the eating is only part of the experience. When you care deeply about food, the preparation of that food is a meditation. The serving of that food is a gift. The preparation of food, the sharing of food – that is the real celebration. I so look forward to my chance to dance this dance again.