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I'm involved with Friends of Literacy, a non-profit organization that provides free literacy programs and GED classes to adults in Knox County. We hold an annual awards banquet known as the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame, which is our organization's largest fundraiser, where we recognize regional writers in the genres of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and social media. We also present a lifetime achievement award. But the most honorable recognition goes to the winner of our student essay competition. It's a truly wonderful event, and I look forward to it every year.

As part of the event there's a silent auction with items donated by local businesses and generous supporters. At the most recent Hall of Fame, I (along with a fellow board member) bid on an amazing four-course private dinner party for eight with all four courses designed and prepared by Martha Boggs, owner of The Bistro at the Bijou. And we won it!

We had our dinner party last weekend, and it was hosted by another board member and her husband (the cutest, most delightful couple ever!) -- Mr. and Mrs. Jack and Marlene O'Hanlon -- in their beautiful downtown home. When we arrived, we were handed glasses of white wine, and there were two tasty appetizers waiting for us -- whole carrots from Martha's garden with a homemade pimento cheese spread and crackers with onion and bacon marmalade. And while we munched, we could see Martha hard at work in the kitchen, plating our first course.

Onion and bacon marmalade

Onion and bacon marmalade

As we were seated around the dining table, musician Brian Sward began playing jazz music for us. He was set up in the living room, and because we were having a Valentine's-themed dinner, Brian strummed love songs for us on guitar.

Our hosts poured more wine, and then they brought out the first course -- a beet and blueberry gorgonzola salad with a balsamic and lemon vinaigrette. The lettuce, like the carrots, came from Martha's garden. And as I found out, much of the produce that Martha uses and serves at her restaurant comes straight from her garden. 

Beet, blueberry, and gorgonzola salad

Beet, blueberry, and gorgonzola salad

I love beets, and the combination of beets and blueberries with a citrusy zest was perfect. I'm looking forward to making salads like this when the CSA season begins in a few months.

Then the second course arrived. Ricotta gnocchi with rabbit ragout and topped with sliced almonds. SO AMAZING. 

I've had potato gnocchi many times, but I've never had ricotta gnocchi -- and I loved it. It was so much lighter and creamier, and what's even better is that Martha told us it was simple to make. The rabbit ragout was savory and sweet, and the sliced almonds added just the right amount of crunch to the creaminess of the dish.

And not worry. I didn't leave a morsel behind. I used a polished, shiny silver spoon to eat (slurp) up all of the flavorful cream sauce.

Ricotta gnocchi with rabbit ragout and sliced almonds

Ricotta gnocchi with rabbit ragout and sliced almonds

After the second course, I was pretty much full. I was on my third glass of wine -- I switched from white to red -- but thankfully I wore a sheath dress so that my waist wouldn't feel pinched as my belly grew from overindulging throughout the night.

For the third course we had slow braised pork ribs. They were so tender, the meat fell right off the bone. No knife necessary. I heard oohs, ahhs, and mmms all around the table.

The ribs were served with white beans and collard greens (which also came from Martha's garden), and they were topped with spicy chow chow. I'd never heard chow chow before, but it's a popular relish, and in the South (from what I've been told) it is usually made of green tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, and onions. I liked the heat and sourness of the chow chow with the ribs and the white beans. I'm a fan of collard greens, and these were perfectly cooked and soft.

Braised pork ribs topped with spicy chow chow on a bed of white beans and collard greens

Braised pork ribs topped with spicy chow chow on a bed of white beans and collard greens

I'm pretty sure my stomach was out of room about halfway through the third course, but I powered through it and emerged victorious. Three clean plates, and ready for a fourth.

The fourth course was a pecan pie with homemade whipped cream. Martha didn't make the pecan pie. Her husband did. (Talk about a talented pair!) And it was the best pecan pie I've ever eaten.

I supposed I've never had a proper pecan pie before. Anytime I've had a slice, it came from a store-bought pecan pie -- you know, in an aluminum pie pan, in a cardboard box with a clear window. And I've never been impressed. But oh my goodness. A homemade pecan pie with homemade whipped cream is like heaven. It was sweet and had a nice crunch like the top of crème brûlée  and the whipped cream was light and fluffy. The perfect complement to the rich pie.

Homemade pecan pie with homemade whipped cream

Homemade pecan pie with homemade whipped cream

What an absolutely amazing dining experience to have. Each course was perfection, and to be able to see Martha plating our dishes and telling us about the food we were eating -- plus knowing that she used ingredients grown from her own garden -- was such a special treat.

With bellies full, we retired to the courtyard where we all sat around a fire with sambuca, Kahlua, and/or Baileys in hand, and were continued to be serenaded by the talented Mr. Sward (now on mandolin) and Mr. O'Hanlon on guitar and vocals.

It was a very good and most delicious night.

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