Dinner… and all that jazz

Color me awed. Last night, I discovered that the Gennett Mansion, a majestic historic Main Street home in my hometown of Richmond, Ind. hosts a series of absolutely awesome gourmet farm-to-table dinners. I don’t technically live there anymore, but I get back often enough. Seriously, how could I have not known about this before now?!? This was without a doubt the best food I’ve ever eaten in Richmond, and right up there with some of the best food I’ve eaten lately, period.

Richmond’s historic Gennett Mansion

 

Here’s the skinny: the highly hospitable Donna and Bob Geddes currently own the Gennett Mansion and live on the third floor. This Colonial Revival mansion was originally built in 1897 as the home of Henry and Alice Gennett, who lived in the house with their family for nearly 40 years. Scratch the surface of Richmond history and you’ll uncover a whole slew of information about the Gennetts and their musical legacy — the family manufactured pianos and later paved the way for new recording technology of their era. Some of the most prominent jazz, blues, gospel and country artists of the early 20th century played and recorded right here in Richmond, including Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael and Gene Autry. The Gennett Mansion is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Indiana Landmark.

 

I must have driven past the Gennett Mansion on Main Street a million times over the years without ever thinking too much about it, to be honest. The building used to house offices; I can recall calling on someone there when I was an advertising account executive for the local newspaper back in the early 1990s. Since taking possession of the property in 2006, the Geddes have painstakingly been restoring it to renewed levels of grandeur. Their efforts have paid off handsomely, and Donna and Bob generously open the mansion for tours, weddings, live music concerts, private parties, corporate events and farm-to-table dinners like the one my dad and I had the pleasure of attending last night.

And what a dinner this was. The Geddes collaborate with the talented Chef Jen Ferrell (who in a small-world twist is married to the grandson of my former orthodontist) to create sumptuous menus for these meals featuring locally sourced organic products. Jen grew up in Brown County, earned a degree in environmental management from Indiana University before later easing her way into a cooking career as a personal chef and caterer. She moved to Richmond eight years ago when her husband took a job with Earlham College.

one of the Gennett Mansion dining rooms

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and had a chance to settle in and snoop around the house before dinner began. Everything was gorgeous, from the fresh daisy centerpieces to the polished woodwork. The architecture and interior design alone is reason enough to come here. There’s a beautiful Starr piano standing in the main hall, a gleaming wood staircase and elegant furnishings throughout. Our dining room (one of several) was decked out with a cross-beamed ceiling, bowed windows and a fireplace large enough to stand in. It was fun to see how the rich and famous of Richmond must have lived back in the early 1900s.

There were nearly 20 guests for dinner last night, although Donna said they can accommodate up to 40. Donna and Bob did all the serving themselves, and I spied only Chef Jen in the kitchen. This was an ambitious undertaking for just three people to pull off, and they did so flawlessly.

braised bison with polenta and red pepper sauce

Our first course set the tone for what was to come with a triangular polenta cake and braised local bison from a farm up between Lynn and Winchester, all topped with a roasted red pepper paprika sauce. The bison was flavorful and tender, and the corn cake light, fluffy and steaming hot. Yum.

mixed greens with shaved radishes and white chocolate vinaigrette

Next up was a salad of greens from the chef’s very own garden — a mix of torn romaine lettuce, spinach and bok choy with a few shaved purple radish slices on top and a sprinkle of almonds. I’m not crazy about radishes, but these were light, peppery and tasty. The dressing was a white chocolate citrus vinaigrette, which has got to be one of the more unusual combinations I’ve ever tasted. It was really different and delicious; the white chocolate was not at all overpowering, just an interesting and subtle flavor note in the overall fresh mix of ingredients.

mint julep sorbet

To cleanse our palates after the salad, we each received a small glass dish of mint julep sorbet. We’ve been on a big bourbon kick in my house as of late, and this was right up my alley. Made with fresh mint and top-shelf Kentucky bourbon and garnished with a single pink rose petal, it was as tasty for the eyes as it was the mouth. I drank a couple of mint juleps during a tour of Churchill Downs earlier last month and they were cloyingly sweet, but as a little icy treat, the recipe worked perfectly. I even stirred a bit into my iced tea to give it a slight minty kick. Big, big fan of this.

beef croustade

The main course was the real showstopper – beef croustade with roasted asparagus. Here’s the breakdown: take a tender piece of local steak, top it with porter roasted onions and gorgonzola cheese, then wrap the whole thing in phyllo dough like a little beggar’s purse and bake. Oh. My. Goodness. I was so excited to eat this, I forgot all about taking pictures until after I’d already cut in and had to rearrange my plate to get the shot. It was soooooo delicious, like a beef Wellington with phyllo instead of puff pastry. I thought my dad’s eyes were going to roll back in his head, he was so happy when he took a bite of this. The asparagus on the side was perfectly tender. We also received a small basket of fragrant rosemary yeast rolls and a compound herb butter to spread on top.

coffee and all the trappings

Prior to bringing out the dessert, Donna served some wonderful coffee she’d brought back from a recent trip to Costa Rica (in addition to her Gennett responsibilities, she also works as an international flight attendant!), along with a cute trio of accoutrement to dude up our cups. What a whimsical idea to stir in raw sugar, chocolate chips and fresh whipped cream!

sour cherry pie with coconut ice cream

Dessert was a picture-perfect slice of lattice-top sour cherry pie (I overheard Chef Jen saying the cherries had come from Wesler’s Orchard) and a little scoop of housemade coconut ice cream sitting pretty beside it. Wow. I couldn’t imagine a better end to a better meal. Chef Jen made the rounds to each table during dessert, I’m sure collecting compliments all along the way. She certainly got quite a few from us. This meal blew my mind.

Last night’s dinner carried a per-person price tag of $38, which seemed extremely reasonable for the amount and quality of food we received. Be aware — there is no alcohol here, only water, coffee and iced tea, but diners are perfectly welcome to bring their own wine or beer.

These Farm to Table dinners happen once a month or so as scheduling allows; follow the Gennett Mansion Facebook page for updates. I, for one, am thrilled to know these events are taking place in my little old hometown, and plan to make a return trip as soon as new details are posted. If you’re up for a memorable fine dining experience in a beautiful historic setting, get your reservation in for one of these dinners post-haste.

For more info about the Gennett Mansion, visit www.gennettmansion.com.

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn't

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn’t

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!