Giving Back: Feasting at Fire Station No. 39

September 11th, 2001.

Where were you?

I first learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers in the pre-dawn hours, waiting for the bus to work. I lived on the beach and the cries of the seagulls overhead, haunting and lonely, echoed my sentiments.

At the time, I worked for a large stock brokerage firm. Post merger, they'd just finished a new office remodel, complete with a flat screen TV. We watched in horror as the towers fell. One of the brokers kept yelling, "It's Al-Qaeda. I swear, it's a jihad." Naively, I turned to him and said, "You're crazy!"

Then, "terrorist" was the stuff of summer blockbusters, not the cause of a national tragedy.

In my job, I routinely worked with folks in New York. They day of the attacks, I was unable to reach anyone. And the following day, in a rare occurrence, they closed the stock market. It was days before I could assess the damage.

My New York colleague at the Depository Trust Company looked up from his desk and watched as plane crashed into the building across from him. By the time I reached Lou, he was still finding shards of glass in obscure places around his desk.

Their offices destroyed, employees working for the Bank of New York were relocated all over the city. When I finally tracked down my contact, he'd been sent to an office two hours away, and routinely fought back tears.

Burned into my consciousness is this documentary by two French filmmakers. Following the life of a young fireman recruit, on 9/11, his station responded to a call at the Twin Towers. Little did they know, this was history in the making. With unlimited access, the filmmakers followed the crew into the building. Their documentary is an uncensored and an unflintching look at the firemen who were first on the scene.

Nine years later, every time I drive by a firehouse, I think about that film. And I'm moved by a desire to somehow give back.

My friend Mindy Bomonti volunteers with the WSCFF Burn Foundation and works closely with the local fire departments. She's the brainchild behind their annual firefighter calendar (a la Chippendale) and coordinates their other fundraising effforts.

In a random conversation, I told her, "I'd like to cook dinner in a firehouse."

Weeks later, she called me back, "I can make your dreams come true!"

For an upcoming auction, we put together a dinner for 12--in the firehouse. Attending the dinner would be the auction winner + 3 friends, 4 firefighters from the calendar, and 4 on duty firemen.

Much to everyone's surprise, the dinner took top dollar at the auction!

As the weeks followed, we settled on a date, selected a menu, and last night, we dined under the shadow of a fire truck.

It's not New York...but this is a start. Giving back:

First step, a site visit to Station Number 39.

This is a brand new LEED-certified station. See the tower on the right? That's used for high-rise rescue training.

Every station is different, but here, an average shift includes four firemen. Downtime at the kitchen table. See the lockers in the background?

I like this guy already!

The new Seattle fire stations are equipped with large kitchens and stainless steel appliances. I kept teasing them, "Why do four guys on shift need two full-sized refrigerators?" Pictured is my pal Mindy, the dream maker.

I poked around the cabinets to determine how much equipment to bring. Fortunately, not much.

The kitchen couldn't accommodate 12 people so I verbalized my fantasy, "Can we have dinner here?"

"Sure! Why not?"

Fireman love?


Let's take a look around...

Station 39, A shift crew.

Now...on with the dinner....

The dream takes shape...but not without a hitch. Two hours before dinner, we realized the folding tables & chairs were no longer on the premises. Scrambling for a solution, the guys moved the table from the kitchen, we grabbed every available (office) chair, and Mindy raced home to retrieve a card table and chairs.

Hitch number two? Dinner was scheduled at 6 PM. At 5:57 PM, a call came in. The on duty crew took off...and we bought time with a tour of the fire station.

Hitch number three? Surprise! When a crew is dispatched on a call, as a safety precaution, the stove automatically shuts off. It remains disabled until the crew comes back. Fun.

While I chated with an off-duty fireman, I learned that 80% of the calls they're dispatched to...are not fire-related. And fortunately, this call fell into the 80% range. An hour later, we were back in business!

With the guys out on a call, I had time for a few photos. This is firefighter & calendar girl, Tori Shroud

A closer look at the table.

Back in the kitchen, my friend Kris Dews assembled the first course.

Spring greens dressed in red wine vinegar, honey, olive oil and herbs, topped with fresh pears. On the side, warmed crostini duo: (L-R) goat cheese & fig tapenade and cambozola with roasted pears.

First snow of the season called for comfort food. Baked pasta with braised pork sugo and a crusty topping of bread crumbs and Parmagiano-Reggiano. We served it with a side of oven-baked yams, tossed in olive oil and fresh rosemary.

Inspired by the season, for dessert... a luscious chocolate stout cake, pumpkin creme anglaise, homemade bourbon ice cream, topped with a dusting of crushed nuts. (The nuts were a last-minute inspiration, sent in a holiday care package from Starbucks. They're featured in Starbucks' holiday line up: macadamia nuts coated in caramel and dusted in cocoa powder. A perfect finish to this dessert.)

And for the grand finale...a group shot! In uniform are the B crew firemen from Station 39. My buddy Mindy is there on the right. Back row includes the auction winners and 2 of the calendar firemen. That's Tori in the front row.

Harnessing an Element of Surprise

In a book review about Ina Garden's book, Parties, I discussed her mantra...aim for an element of surprise. In other words, when others expect you to zig...go for the zag.

Taking a cue from Ina, I've had parties in back room prep kitchens, a coffee roasting facility, buildings under construction, and the penthouse of an iconic Seattle building (See the triangle at the top? That's a former boiler room, turned private residence.)

Yesterday I was invited to attend a quarterly meeting. The goal: review objectives for the present quarter, and project for the next one.

Sounds like yawner of a meeting, eh?

Yet I have learned...when Andrew and Shane join forces...expect the unexpected.

I never know who will be there, which keeps thing interesting. Yesterday's meeting included Huffington Post columnist and author Darby Roach, a design guru who obtained his master of architecture at MIT, and a visual designer for Nordstroms.

But the real surprise?

Check out the location for our design-focused discussion:

It doesn't get better than this...the TESLA showroom in Seattle. Have you seen the TESLAs? This is an all-electric sports car.

Forget fossil fuels. This car is powered by an outlet.

Who knew going green could be this sexy?

Modern art display? No. This is an innovative use of color samples.
Pick your pleasure.

Invite only meeting, with a focus on design.

Many thanks to my buddies at Sahale Snacks, who provided the nosh.

A Guide to the Best Books on Entertaining

These days, I need little inducement to throw a party, but let's be honest, my early efforts were...abysmal. Full of good intentions, I worked like crazy and the results fell far short of expectations. Frustrated and more than a little discouraged, I took a long hiatus before attempting another party.

But I came around. With practice and advice from a few good books...eventually, my parties began to mirror my original vision.

In the weeks before a party, you'll find me on the couch, surrounded by a mountain of books. Fishing for both recipes and aesthetic ideas, I spend hours...sometimes days, paging through books. While I've managed to assemble a massive book collection...when it comes to party planning, I turn to the same books over and over again.

With holiday entertaining on the horizon, here's where I turn for inspiration:

Entertaining Simple: Recipes, Menus, Party Ideas for Every Kind of Gathering
by Matthew Mead
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008

If you buy just one book on entertaining, make it this one. Many entertaining books are long on fantasy, short on reality check...and the pressure to throw the "perfect" party keeps folks from hosting anything at all. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned party pro, you'll be culling ideas from this book for years to come. First chapter, Mead makes it clear: you don't need everything, you need the RIGHT things. Page 28 is your guide to a smart entertaining pantry: 12 place settings, 12 wine glasses, 1-2 large platters, 1 set of nesting mixing bowls, etc. Based on that list, Mead is a master at making every piece in his collection do double duty. The premise behind Entertaining Simple is about making the most with what you've got and then provide loads of inspiring ideas. Glass votive holders become: small dessert cups, handleless after dinner espresso cups, and vessels for everything from olives to candies. Drool-worthy images by Quentin Bacon are far from just pretty. I find myself studying these images, wondering, "Why didn't I think of that?!" Follow that up with Mead's thoughtful, well-chosen recipes and you'll can host a party and have time to enjoy it!

Southern Cocktails: Dixie Drinks, Party Potions, and Classic Libations
by Denise Gee
Chronicle Books, 2007

Who's thirsty? The minute I saw those frosty mint juleps, I was sold! Fortunately, this book delivers more than just a pretty cover. Cocktail recipes -- both single servings and drinks for a crowd -- are interspersed with fun stories of lore. Informative headnotes provide everything from recipe alternatives, serving suggestions, or point to the perfect tequila for The Ultimate Margarita (Tequila National from Jalisco.) With a decidedly southern spin, the fun begins long before you reach for a glass. In the Classics Chapter, Gee notes: "Traditions keep the fabric of the South richly woven, and the region's tried-and-true cocktails are decidedly its liquid assets." Not to miss is the handful of nibble recipes in the back offering Southern party favorites like Spiked Pimento Cheese, Freddie Lee's Cheese Pennies, and Vidalia Onion Cheese Toasts. This is one book I reach for over and over again.

Cocktail Parties with a Twist: Drink + Food + Style
by Alexandra Angle, Eliot Angle, Ericka McConnell
Stewart, Tabori & Chang

A surprising gem, Cocktail Parties with a Twist covers topics other books don't--got a microscopic apartment in the city? Set up a bar in the closet. The night is winding down and yet guests still haven't gotten the clue the party's over? Take a cue from the restaurant biz: close the bar down, turn off the music, and "stop being so damn exciting--let the conversation lull." This book covers food & cocktails for the fashionista sect. Minted shrimp canapes on a bed of pea and sorrel puree; cucumber cups (square, hollowed out cucumbers) with sweet pepper coulis; and precious jicama slices with avocado and crab salad. While several recipes are fussier than I care to bother with, there are plenty of recipes that are long on style with minimal work -- cheese crisps with white bean puree, for example. Chapters are divided into themes: the Urban Loft; Impossibly Small Apartment; Dock at Sunset; Glamour by the Pool's Edge. Here again we see captivating images with lifestyle shots a la Vogue, and I'm grabbing ideas all along the way.

Finger Food: Bite-Size Food for Cocktail Parties
by Elsa Petersen-Scheperlern
Ryland, Peters & Small, 2002

While I lean towards family-style or plated presentations, occasionally I need a go-to resource for finger food. I have ten or more books that cover the topic, but this is the one I actually use. Stunning photography and modern presentations lend an excitement long before the party begins. Chapters are divided into serving suggestion-formats: Spoons, Cups, and Quickies; Toasts, Buns, Tarts, and Cones; Pizzas and (puff) Pastries; Wraps and Pockets, etc. The outstanding photography, teamed with a layout that offers a clean presentation and plenty of white space, for sheer visual presentation, I'm constantly reaching for this book. The recipes themselves are a hit parade of familiar offerings, with a fun spin. Mini crabcakes showcase Thai flavors with a chili dipping sauce; meat balls are Vietnamese-style, redolent of lemongrass, cilantro, red chilies, and fish sauce; and a variation on pita pockets includes tea-smoked Chinese duck. You get the idea. Bloggers & food photographers take note: from a photography perspective, there's a lot to admire here.

Fandango: Recipes, Parties, and License to Make Magic
bv Sandy Hill
Artisan, 2007

In all the best ways, this book is pure fantasy. Should you find yourself flush with cash....why not to rent a helicopter for your repelling bachelor friends? The Indian-themed dinner on the cover includes live elephants and guests decked out in saris. Sumptuous themes look straight out of a movie (or life for the Paris Hilton sect), for me, this book provides loads of inspiration, taken down a notch. As you'd expect, the menus utilize sophisticated ingredients and yet, the presentations are entirely approachable for gilding the lily occasions. While I'm not likely to make the nasturtium mayonnaise, the accompanying steamed salmon wrapped in a banana leaf is a great way to accommodate a crowed for a plated meal. Getting into the mind of a top-tier caterer helps streamline your own events, which is why the event notes in the back of the book are especially valuable. This is a showstopper look at the luxe life but the presentations, props, and jaw-dropping photography keep me coming back for more.

Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties That are Really Fun
by Ina Garten
Clarkson Potter, 2001

This book is a classic. As many of you know, before Ina was a Food Network staple, she owned a legendary catering company in the posh Hamptons. Ina is famous for paring recipes down to their simplest and most flavorful. Parties is divided into themes--from Sunday breakfast to football parties and afternoon tea. What I found almost more useful than the recipes, were the insights from Ina's most successful--and disastrous parties (omelets for 20? Forget it!) One tip I've relied on over and over again, "Keep an element of surprise." I'm always on the lookout for a special spot or a fun twist to an evening, whether we dine in a back room prep kitchen or a coffee roasting facility. Recipes? I've made nearly all of them, but take my word for it...the recipe for Ina's Chinese Chicken Salad is worth the price of the book! Hands down, this is one of my top 10 favorite recipes and it never fails to please. (When asparagus isn't in season, I substitute green beans. Another variation, I cut the ingredients smaller and serve the salad in lettuce cups for a light and flavor-packed appetizer.) Studying Ina's menus, I've learned to minimize the selection, but serve the very best.

Food to Flowers: Simple, Stylish Food for Easy Entertaining
by Lulu Powers and Laura Holmes Haddad
William Morrow Cookbooks, 2010

Occasionally a book comes along that ups the ante and sends a ripple effect throughout the genre. This is it. Los Angeles-based caterer Lulu Powers has an approach that is simple, yet stunning. Dubbed the next Martha Stewart, Lulu is less about craft and long on style. Her book is jam-packed with tips (Lulu's Entertaining Cheat Sheet -- are your iPod playlists ready? The Twenty-Two-Minute Countdown: candles lit? Wine uncorked? Music on? Outdoor lights on?) And take note, when a pro gives up her source list, I couldn't be more thrilled. Four pages of contacts call out everything from housewares to specialty food & beverage companies. Smart examples of her parties range from Houseguest Breakfast to The Bowwow Bash dog party and "Shaken, Not Stirred": A Guys-Only Dinner (the usual suspects: bridal/baby showers, kids parties, and picnics are covered too.) Gorgeous photos are shot in a lifestyle fashion, drawing you in with an intimacy that makes you feel like guest at the party. And like my own pantry, Lulu mixes flea market finds with carefully chosen newer pieces. (Thanks to her, I instantly began a vintage champagne coupe collection.) Frankly, I've culled so many ideas from this book, there is a distinct marker: life before Lulu (black & white), and after Lulu (full on color!) This is a great book I'd welcome anytime, but if you're looking for a special gift, look no further.

Food for Friends: Simply Delicious Menus for Easy Entertaining
by Fran Ward
Ryland, Peters & Small, 2005

Australian chef Fran Ward offers a recipe-driven entertaining book that shares a culinary aesthetic with Donna Hay. What I love about this book is that the recipes are all extremely approachable and instantly put me at ease. Each of the twenty-five menus feature a work plan, divided into work that can be done the day before, on the day, and just before serving. A wide-range of flavor profiles span the globe from BBQ to the Mediterranean and Middle East. Photos take center stage in Food for Friends. A typical menu spans five pages, and as an example, the Weekend Dining menu includes eighteen photos. Visual attention covers all the bases--the table scene, individual dishes, and preparation steps.

Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers
by Kathy Casey
Chronicle Books, 2009

Kathy sums it up in the intro, "My philosophy in entertaining is simple: don't overdo it. Pick one or two signature cocktails for your get-together, select a few appetizers--being sure to have a variety of hot and cold--and make as much in advance as you can." I have nearly worn out my copy of this book. The Roasted Pear Crostini with Gorgonzola is my go-to recipe for fall. All the components can be done in advance and with a quick warming in the oven just before serving, I'm in heaven! The Sake Teriyaki Sticky Chicken Wings are another hit. And you won't believe how fast the Bacon, Blue Cheese & Pecan Cocktail Cookies disappear! Kathy's cocktail recipes offer refreshing twists on old favorites....and more than a few new innovations. Fresh herbs, for example, elevate cocktails with a sophisticated spin. One of my favorite recipes...Ginger Sake Cocktail "Sushi" is adult riff on jello shooters. Light and refreshing, they are a perfect blend of surprise and nostalgia. Photographers, take note: Angie Norwood Browne's stunning images will provide tons of inspiration.

Raising the Bar on Cocktails: The Joey Cosmo

I spied this cocktail from across the room. "What's that?"

An enthusiastic server replied, "That's our signature cocktail."

"Let's try it!"

At first sip, I was hooked! Geoff Boyd, Director of Bar Development for the Canadian-based Joey Restaurant group, designed this beauty. Think of it as a Cosmopolitan, with a twist.

What catapults this Cosmo into a truly sublime cocktail is....muddled cucumber. Cool, refreshing cucumber cuts the sweetness and adds a welcome layer of flavor.

I must admit, there's something seductive about this cocktail. I wandered around a media event, offering sips to everyone. "Here, try this! It's incredible." And I asked...some say begged...for the recipe four times! The next day, the recipe landed in my e-mail, courtesy of Joey's PR guru, Britt Innes. (Thanks, Britt!)

Whip up your own batch, or head to a Joey's near you, but word of warning: line up your designated driver in advance. They go down e-a-s-y!

The Joey Cosmo
courtesy of Joey Restaurant Group

In a martini shaker, muddle:

4 cubes cucumber (one ½ thick slice of cucumber, cut into four quarters)


1.25 oz citrus vodka
1.25 oz Cointreau
2 oz cranberry juice
1 oz sweet & sour mix

Fill shaker with ice

Shake vigorously!

Strain into a chilled martini glass.