jude’s culinary journey

Happy birthday, big boy!

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 9/23/20

We lucked out. Soon after we began renting a small house in Callicoon, the neighbor who helped secure the rental for us introduced us to his neighbors, a couple with a red-haired little boy who …

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jude’s culinary journey

Happy birthday, big boy!

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We lucked out. Soon after we began renting a small house in Callicoon, the neighbor who helped secure the rental for us introduced us to his neighbors, a couple with a red-haired little boy who walked the country roads in confidence. The couple had been in the area for many years the husband had grown up here.

Over time, the two became our closest friends. Smitty, almost from the beginning, could easily have referred to my sister, Janet, and me as his “other wives.” Starting more than 20 years ago, we depended on his good and generous nature to inform us on the fine points of being homeowners and country dwellers. The many (sometimes frantic) calls to him for aid or advice are too embarrassing in volume and nature to recount but, suffice it to say, we are indebted to him.

Marci, as well, has given us advice, often of a creative nature, in everything from paint colors to gardening tips. And we quickly found we have a great deal in common with her. We three gals have an interest in exploring ethnic foods, whether it’s sharing recipes or seeking out hidden gems of restaurants in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey, serving authentic dishes native to Mexico, the Middle East, Greece, or Vietnam. We’re all drawn to vintage furnishings from mid-century America but also from places as far-flung as Portugal, India and Guatemala, and both houses are filled with crockery and memorabilia from trips to foreign lands.

I’ve always enjoyed entertaining and hosting get-togethers with Marci and Smitty.

The time is so relaxed and comfortable that I feel no pressure the way I might with other guests. We talk about everything under the sun, we eat and drink, and we listen (and often dance to) the music we grew up with that has special meaning to us all.

Some years ago, I began throwing Margarita Madness evenings for the four of us. Once this practice began, if Smitty would fix something in our house and I would want to pay him, he would reply, “A margarita or two.” So, these evenings became a way to thank him for his generosity and for us to have a blast with our best friends. I always have, on hand, frozen lime juice ice cubes, which can be easily defrosted as the first step in preparing a pitcher of margaritas. When we entertain, an array of hors d’oeuvres is laid out which preclude anyone having to worry about preparing dinner afterward.

In late August of this year, Smitty’s 70th birthday was nearing and looming large. We knew the days would soon be too cold to entertain outdoors, as we have since the coronavirus turned our lives inside out, so we looked for an evening that would be warm enough to spend a few hours on our front porch. I emailed Smitty with a possible date and he wrote that that would work for them, adding, “And I’m expecting a lot of expensive gifts and a big cake.”

We spared no expense. We drove immediately to the Dollar General in Jeffersonville. First, we picked out a blue-ribbon pin with the words “Birthday Boy!” Then we browsed the toy aisle and found a snazzy miniature sports car, two packages of assorted, rather realistic-looking plastic tools such as a measuring tape, a hammer, screwdriver, wrench and other gizmos usually found in the average man’s toolbox, and a couple of other silly gifts. Our car mechanic had recently given Janet a frisbee advertising his shop and, at the farmers’ market, we picked up three ears of corn of the cob, which we knew the family enjoyed. Janet wrapped everything in gaily colored Happy Birthday paper and placed them in a big stack. At Peck’s supermarket, we found a fudgy, chocolate layer cake from a well-known bakery in the Bronx and bought an enormous wax “7” and a “0” candle to wedge into the cake.

Marci and Smitty arrived on the appointed night with Smitty holding a huge coil of wire he was planning on using for an electrical issue we were having. He didn’t even notice the presents piled on a table on the porch, and we had to say, “Whoa, not now, Smitty, this is your big birthday celebration!” Janet had rearranged the porch furniture so that we were socially distanced from each other and on a large glass-covered coffee table I had placed an enormous bowl of corn, black bean and cherry tomato salad alongside three kinds of cheese, assorted crackers, slices of Italian prosciutto, pistachios, spiced walnuts and fried bell peppers with capers and balsamic vinegar. The birthday cake, topped with his name that I’d written in white icing and the oversized candles, sat next to the stacked gifts.

We persuaded Smitty to open a certain present first—the “Birthday Boy” pin—and Marci stood to attach it to his tee-shirt. The safety pin was faulty, and Janet ran down to the basement to bring up pliers. A good 10 minutes went by with Smitty earnestly working to fix the pin before he finally was wearing it proudly. He opened his other gifts, one by one, holding them up so they could be caught for posterity. A favorite of all of ours was a pair of black plastic glasses. Attached to them were thick bushy eyebrows, a big fake nose, under which was a yellow-colored blob made to resemble snot. We each tried it on to varying ridiculous effects, then got down to the margaritas and snacks.

I played music from the 1970s as I always do at our gatherings, and we talked and laughed for hours. Time flew by. We cut the cake, finally, and though the women all thought it delicious, Smitty didn’t find it quite sweet enough. “He’s used to his mom’s desserts,” Marci explained, though that didn’t seem to deter him from finishing a big wedge of the cake before we called it a night. No “Happy Birthday” or goodbye hugs this time. The only weird moment in a perfect and delightful evening with dear friends. Marci’s birthday is coming. Maybe by then we can embrace.

Corn and black bean salad with cherry tomato salsa

Serves 4

For the salad:
3 ears of corn on the cob
1 cup (or more, to taste) canned black beans, rinsed and drained well
3/4 to 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 ounces finely crumbled feta or Cotija cheese
1/2 to 1 teaspoon jalapeno hot sauce (or 1 jalapeno seeded and minced)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1/4 teaspoon sea of Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the cherry tomato salsa:
1 cup small, colorful cherry tomatoes
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 teaspoon sea or Kosher salt

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Shuck the corn cobs and slice off the pointy tip of one end and about 1/4-inch of the thicker end, so the cob can stand up on a cutting board. Add the shucked cobs to the boiling water. Turn off the heat under the pot and let the corn sit in the hot water for 4 minutes. Drain well. When cool enough to handle, use a sharp knife to cut the kernels from the cobs. Place in a large bowl. To the bowl add the black beans, cilantro and crumbled cheese. In a small bowl, whisk to combine the lime juice, olive oil, mayonnaise, ancho chile powder, salt, pepper and hot sauce (or minced jalapeno). Pour the vinaigrette over the corn salad and refrigerate for at least one hour. Make the cherry tomato salsa by halving the cherry tomatoes with a sharp knife and placing them in a bowl.

Add all the other ingredients and set aside until ready to serve the corn salad.
Remove the salad from the refrigerator and use a slotted spoon to transfer the cherry tomatoes to the corn salad. Gently, but thoroughly, mix the tomatoes into the salad. They will have exuded a lot of juice, which you can discard. Serve the salad with a large slotted spoon.

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