Innkeepers take benefit diners down the Mississippi
Michael Barnes, Out & About
Strains of "Ol' Man River" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" wafted from the broad foyer of the 1917 guesthouse on East Riverside Drive.
Dinner service, cookware and Midwestern ingredients spread neatly over the wide kitchen with its near-commercial Wolf range and poised crew of three brunette women greeting each guest.
Behind a curtain in the tall dining room, a long, narrow table was festooned with candles, flowers and smooth river pebbles. Hand-painted napkins unfolded into maps of the Mississippi Valley.
Innkeepers and hosts Blaise Bahara and Bess Giannakakis certainly know how to set the scene for a benefit dinner party. Their theme for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" on Feb. 4 was "Mississippi Rising: A Culinary Journey Down Ol' Man River."
Each year, clusters of hosts around Austin give dinners on the same night to raise money for Project Transitions, a nonprofit that serves people with HIV and AIDS by providing hospice, housing and support.
The scene was not unfamiliar. For several years, our former cooking group, dubbed the Spice Boys, hosted "Guess Who" dinners. This was the year to get back into the "Guess Who" spirit.
Two years ago, Bahara and Giannakakis purchased what would become Gateway Guesthouse, after moving here from Minneapolis, where Giannakakis was a professional chef.
So why a bed and breakfast in Austin?
"I've got 10 years of really hard work ahead of me," she confesses. "I don't want to spend 14 hours a day over a hot stove. I'd rather spend it making beds and chatting with people."
The couple rents out four rooms in two structures separated by a pool and spa deck that they added. The house is decorated with historical photographs of Austin and elsewhere, along with reviews of Giannakakis' last restaurant, which appeared on an episode of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
Host Guy Fieri called one of her casual dishes at Colossal Cafe: "Christmas in a sandwich."
"All I got was a lousy hat," Giannakakis joked.
For the conceptual Project Transitions feast, Mississippian food remained the centerpiece. All the food and drink — or at least the ideas for the dishes — came from the basins of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Ten states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana — were represented. (The contributing Missouri River was snubbed.)
First came a thick, rich wild rice soup steeped in chicken stock, almost the consistency of pudding. Inside each glorious dish rose a tiny breadstick to represent the "knockers," the wooden sticks used to harvest the "Grass of the Midwest," that is not, by the way, directly related to rice.
"Wild rice is on every menu in Minnesota," Giannakakis said with an indulgent smile. The concoction came with a bottle of Summit Winter Ale, brewed in St. Paul, Minn.
Next arrived small, pale medallions of pork loin nested on a reduction of moonshine-corn cream, almonds and roasted red peppers. ("There are 10 pigs for every human in Iowa," we learned.)
Alongside sat a shot of the Prichards Lincoln County Lightning, a stinging white corn whiskey — that can't be aged — hailing from Tennessee.
Tiny bottles of Budweiser accompanied the next dish, lightly breaded catfish and even lighter hush puppies, for which Giannakakis used yeast to keep them from sinking to the bottom of one's stomach.
A fresh take on fried chicken — maybe the best I've ever tasted — was refreshed with 9-year-old Knob Creek single-barrel bourbon, along with biscuits and gravy as well as mashed potatoes and gravy.
Another meat dish still to go: Memphis-style barbecue pork ribs indulged in a spicy rub for three days, then smoked for three hours before finishing in an oven. Tender as a mother's love.
An exquisite profiterole that mixed hot and cool chocolate around a puff of bread finished the meal. This was served with a Missouri chardonnay.
"We had to ship it in," Bahara says. "It makes you appreciate California wine."
As everyone was scraping the last chocolate off the plate, almost instantaneously, demitasses of espresso appeared for those who requested this ritual cleansing of the senses.
Why the Mississippi theme, other than the couple's life adventures up and down its stem?
"I wanted to do something to unite the whole country," Giannakakis says. "You know, how we used to be together?"
When the pair heard about the Project Transitions series, they jumped right in, setting their table this year for 11.
"Fifty percent of the guests are people we know, fifty percent we don't know," Bahara says. "Last year we served food from six countries for `Mediterranean Madness.' Like last time, we (stuck) to small dishes."
The guests, who were given slips of paper printed with facts about Mississippi Valley's gustatory bounty to read aloud before each course, attended for a range of reasons.
"This one sounded the most interesting and intimate," said Adam Holzband of the "Guess Who" dinner selections. "It's the best way to get a little closer to the chef and the food."
"I came last year," Robin Sanders said. "So I know what a great evening we are in for."
"They are the two coolest women and great chefs," Wendy Smith said.
"We live down the street and watched the changes in the house go up," Torbin McEwin said. "We were interested in what was inside."
"Well, I'm on the board of Project Transitions," Lynn McNeill said. "And I've not done one of these before."
"I sold them the house!" Angelle Hall said. "And we became fast friends. They dreamboarded really big."
House painter Eric Frost had worked on Gateways Guesthouse.
Not long after the dinner began - Bahara and Giannakakis making announcements from the nearby kitchen — the stories, jokes and laughter rolled through the room.
Food blogger Jodi Bart, for instance, had won the Whole Foods Foodie Fantasy contest which took her to several culinary regions of Europe and led to her engagement. Such stories came out of that adventure!
Among the most amusing tropes of the evening arose from kidder Kimberly Kohlhaas, who claimed not to have spoken in public since third grade when she had mispronounced a commonly mispronounced word.
After that, almost everyone reading of the Mississippi Valley prompts stumbled in some way or another, leaving the whole table heaving with giddiness.
The final toast of many: "To doing it wrong and not caring."
Wild Rice Soup
1/2 cup wild rice
4 Tbsp. butter
1 small carrot (about 1/4 cup) minced
3 stalks (about 1 cup) minced celery
1 medium onion (about one cup) minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
21/2 to 3 cups chicken stock
2 cups half-and-half
1 tsp. hot sauce
1/2 chicken bouillon cube or salt
1 Tbsp. parsley chopped
2 Tbsp. sweet marsala, sherry or port
To cook the wild rice:
Soak rice in cold water for 10 minutes. Strain water away. Add to a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Simmer for 30-40 minutes until tender but still with "some chew" to it (it does not and should not cook up like rice, it is more like al dente pasta). Strain water away, rinse and set aside.
To cook the other soup ingredients:
Melt butter, over medium heat in pot large enough to accommodate all ingredients. Add carrot, celery and onion and sauté until softened
Stir flour into the butter/vegetable mixture creating a roux and let cook 2 to 3 minutes.
Stir in the wine, let cook for 1 minute. Stir in 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock, let cook until thickened to the consistency of gravy.
Stir in the cooked wild rice and half-and-half. Bring to a very light simmer, stirring often.
Add hot sauce and bouillon cube or salt, more or less to taste and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, stirring often. Add remaining chicken stock as needed to thin soup to desired consistency. Stir in parsley and port or sherry and heat through.
Garnish with chives and serve.
- Bess Giannakakis, Gateway Guesthouse
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup masa flour
11/2 tsp. salt
Pinch black pepper
1 tsp. yeast
1/3 cup buttermilk
2 Tbsp. pepper jack cheese grated
1/2 Tbsp. scallions minced
1 tsp. fresh cilantro minced
Enough shortening or canola oil to fill a pot to 3 inches deep
Mix cornmeal, flours, salt, pepper and yeast in a bowl. Mix egg, buttermilk, cheese, scallions and cilantro in another bowl. Slowly pour and fold together wet mix into dry mix until fully incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at 8 to 12 hours.
Remove from refrigerator 1 hour before cooking. Bring shortening or oil in pot to 350 degrees.
Drop batter, approximately a teaspoon full, into oil. Turn and roll around until golden brown. Remove to plate with paper towels for cooling. Serve when cool enough to eat or at room temperature.
Makes approximately 30 light, small-ish hushpuppies.
- Bess Giannakakis, Gateway Guesthouse
Bess' Fried Chicken
4 cups buttermilk
1 Tbsp. hot sauce
1 tsp. salt
1 chicken cut into 8 pieces
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 Tbsp. salt
1/2 Tbsp. paprika
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 Tbsp. chili powder
1/2 cup corn flakes crushed
Enough shortening or canola oil to fill skillet to one inch deep
Mix buttermilk, hot sauce and salt in a large bowl. Submerge chicken pieces. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate 6 to 12 hours
Remove chicken from refrigerator. Mix all dry ingredients and pour onto a sheet-pan. Retain 1/2 the buttermilk, remove chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Add eggs to the retained buttermilk, mixing well. Dredge chicken in dry sheet-pan mixture, shaking off excess.
Dip in buttermilk/egg mixture, shaking off excess. Dredge again in dry sheet-pan mixture, shaking off excess. In a large cast iron or heavy skillet, heat shortening or oil to 350 degrees.
Add chicken pieces with space between and fry, turning once, 5 to 7 minutes per side (thighs and legs will take longer). Remove to plate with paper towels for draining.
- Bess Giannakakis, Gateway Guesthouse
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner