Monday, May 31, 2010

The Mac Salad Hypothesis

Motherhood Right of Passage: the Themed Friend Birthday Party, complete with homemade cake. I pulled it off and I want a tiara. I don't know why a tiara specifically. However, I think it may do the trick.

We started off with the premise of having a smallish Dinosaur themed birthday party for Nomi's playmates and their parents, while throwing a Memorial Day barbecue in the process, and continued from there. My sister had given me the idea of burying pieces of a dinosaur bone puzzle in the backyard and having the kids formally excavate and assemble it. While I didn't think that would work for 2 and 3 year olds, I figured collective digging in the dirt is never a bad thing.

Dozen Small Toy Dinosaurs: Set of 2 inch Plastic Toy Dino FiguresWe have a huge pile of top soil aka dirt that National Grid left in the backyard following their replacement of the telephone pole (without the removal of the old one, I might add) that resides in the back corner of our lot. Nomi calls it her mountain. So, I bought two packs of 48 count 2 inch plastic dinosaursand buried them to be excavated - it was possibly the best $10 purchase ever. At Christmas Tree Shop, we found a good deal on buckets and shovels, which were both utilitarian and good favors. We also found huge bottles of Magic Bubbles for 69 cents each (Side note: if there was ever an incredibly dangerous store to be set loose in with unlimited funds, Christmas Tree Shop would be it.) Our final station utilized the Fisher Price Dinosaur Giant Coloring books (purchased for $1.99 each) and the Melissa and Doug dinosaur puzzles in a quiet space a bit aways from all of the action.

Dinosaur Original BBQ Sauce - 19oz
Lo and behold, Naomi's Dinosaur BBQ was born.

So, then came the tricky task of building a BBQ menu that could, for the most part, be prepared before hand, while still being both toddler and adult friendly. And here's the clincher: all food had to fit under the Mac Salad Hypothesis. That means, when building this menu, we were dealing with foods that folks already have a very deep seated sense of how they should appear and taste. There are some foods that simply should not and do not change in a culture. Barbecue and picnic food in America falls into this category.

I say this menu building was tricky, but it was really such as blast. When building menus, you have to balance so many factors. I think look at them as a puzzle that will fit together, if only I can find all the pieces. It's such a delicious feeling to see those pieces all click into place. Here's what we came up with:

Dinosaur BBQ Chicken, served cold
Using his usual concoctions of a mix of ingredients, Dave marinated 12 split chicken breasts in Dinosaur BBQ Sauce and grilled them over charcoal. He started them skin side down, and basted both sides with the sauce while cooking. He did them the night before and we served them cold. The flavor was phenomenal. I know that it's bad for you, but is there anything better than the skin off of BBQ chicken?!?

Traditional American Macaroni Salad
This is the control group of the Mac Salad Hypothesis. Some things are delicious because they are simple and unglamorous. They recall every other barbecue you ever attended, and the flavors stay the same. For them to taste right to the palate, they must fit into certain flavor parameters. They can vary a little bit, but only so much. Our Mac Salad was based off of an America's Test Kitchen recipe, and very little concocting was permitted. 

Cucumber Salad
This was a Leah concoction. My father and grandfather both make a version of the German gurkensalat which always makes it to the table already half consumed by folks walking by to sneak, 'just one taste.'  This is the version I've arrived at over trial and error over the years. The herbs vary based on what I have on hand. Mint gives a Mediterranean touch that I love, while keeping within family guidelines (heavy on the vinegar with just a bit of sweet). 

5 cucumbers
1 garlic clove
1 medium onion
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1 cup olive oil
A pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
2 T fresh mint, julienned aka sliced thin

1. Peel cucumbers. Slice in half. Scoop out the seeds. Slice into thin half moons. Place in a colander and sprinkle with 1 tsp salt and toss. Allow to sit for at least 1 hr.

2. Meanwhile, thinly slice the onion. Allow to soak in water for at least 10 minutes. Drain.

3. Peel garlic and crush with the back on a knife. Place in the bottom of your salad bowl with 1 tsp of sea salt. Grind the two together with a pestle or the back of a spoon into a paste. Add the sugar. Add vinegar and olive oil. Add the onion, pepper and mint. Combine. Adjust dressing to taste. 

4. Add cucumbers. Toss through. Allow to sit at least 2 hrs before serving.

Potato Salad
This did not turn out as well as I had hoped. The recipe I used really counts on peeled potatoes to suck up the dressing and its flavor. I thought the multi colored potatoes would add a fun twist, but I'll quote my brother, "It looked weird." We're back to the Mac Salad hypothesis: some foods, those 'down home' foods, should just not be messed with.

Stacey's Pita Chips with Sabra Humus
Those things are SO good. I was tempted to make our own humus, but that would just have been going too far. Sabra humus is delish, with a good does of tahini and enough garlic so that you taste it, but it doesn't knock you or anyone else over.

We also included Hebrew National Hotdogs with buns in our menu, as well as the dino PB & J pictured above. Sometimes including a basic kid food is just the best way to go. I had the leftover dinos for breakfast the next day, and though they had reached a slightly fossilized state, they were still fun to eat.

Finally there was...

The Cake
I am a huge Cake Wrecks fan. I have never in my life had such sympathy for Wreckrators (those who perpetrate cake wrecks) as I did while making this cake. This was my first layer cake and it was HARD. I made the cakes and the frosting from scratch. When we didn't have enough frosting, I had to improvise. So, I had a bunch of leftover brownie bits from making dino brownies (all their heads fell off). I put a layer in the middle, and I used the frosting I had to cover the cake. Then, I pressed in the brownies. I hear it went with the dirt theme. It really needed a dinosaur skeleton on top, or some such thing, but what can ya do? I made my first layer cake, I added a little bit of almond extract along with the vanilla to the frosting, and it was moist and scrumptious. I'll take it. The cake, that is.

Now, folks, your mission if you choose to accept it: go forth and test out my Mac Salad Hypothesis. What falls into that catagory? How far can your vary from the recipe for, say, homemade Chicken Soup and not have your family turn to you and say, "Weird?"

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