Hanging out in Rockford: A dinner for Uncorked-Part Two
By Mike Leifheit, Columnist
I am cooking for a group of liquor suppliers at the Irish Rose in Rockton. I am giving this dinner to help Megan Gallagher, who runs Uncorked In The Rock River Valley, a wine, beer and food- tasting event to benefit SIDS of Northern Illinois and the River District. Among those attending are Jim Beksel from Paramount Distributing, Dave Diaz from Judge, and Dolph and Allan Novak from Union Beverages. Allan has brought his wife, Vickie. Also present are Shawn Cremer and his girlfriend, Rachel Hamilton, from the Uncorked Committee. Thus far, we have served pork candied in a cayenne pepper glaze and sprinkled with garlic chives, and a salad of snap peas, cherries and orange cherry tomatoes in a dressing made of fresh blueberries, spices and herbs.
Back in the kitchen, Maria cooks and mashes some red potatoes with the skins still on. We dont like to give up the good potato flavor associated with the skins. She puts them in the big Hobart mixer with butter and the cut-up cheddar. The resulting mashed potatoes are strongly cheesy and brightly orange. We put them in the steam table to stay warm. Then for the first main course, she coats soft-shell crabs with egg and flour and browns them in olive oil and whole butter. Then she deglazes the pan with a little white wine to create a sauce for the homemade egg noodles I made earlier.
After we serve the crabs, I make the obligatory table visit. What am I supposed to do with this? Megan asks. The other guests seem confused also. I show them how you eat the whole crab including the legs and claws. Then I give the assemblage a break before we prepare the lamb chops, and take the time to sit and have a glass of wine with the table. I meet Allan Novaks wife, Vickie, for the first time. She is an Irish girl. I tell the story about getting my Irish passport, and she understands my feelings about restoring my Irish citizenship.
In the kitchen Jose cooks 21 baby lamb chops medium rare. Maria sautés some baby spinach in butter with crimini mushrooms and a squeeze of lemon. We serve both with the orange potatoes, and just before they go to the table, I drizzle the plate with a freshly made hollandaise. I make the obligatory table visit again to see how things are going. The guests are struggling with the tiny chops. I tell them that I always pick them up like chicken, and that in Europe, this would be considered perfectly normal. Everyone picks up their chops, and when they are finished, only two are left.
After dinner, I sit and chat with my guests. The table is long, and l dont get to talk to Dave at the far end. Then I excuse myself because one of my best friends in the whole world, Karen Elyea, is hosting the River District mixer at Minglewood, and I want to be able to attend, even for a short while. I take the big Yamaha down Route 2. It is a beautiful night to ride. When I get to Minglewood, most of the partiers have left, but it is good because I get to talk to Karen alone.
I have known her for years. I first met her in her shop that was across the street from my old place, the Old Rock River Cafe. She was out of that business but always wanted to open another. We got close again when I hired her to run the Block 5 festival. She did a fabulous job with the festival and brought it to a whole new level. We hang out, and I congratulate her on having achieved her dream. Then I say how tired I am and head home.
When I get back to the Irish Rose, it is packed. Business is like a good Friday or Saturday night. A number of the crowd came here from Minglewood. The rest of them are here to honor Ken Curtis, who just received the honor of Best Album of the Year at the annual RAMIs event. Frank Schier is in the back dining room as part of this party, but l am so tired that I dont even walk back to say hello. An old girlfriend of mine, Sonia, is here with the entire staff from her new salon in Roscoe. The place is crawling with pretty women. Jenn Phillips stops me to say her dad, Larry, sent thanks for mentioning him in a column. Oblivious to all of this (it has been a really long day), I climb the stairs and shut the hatch.
Upstairs alone, I stand and stare out my window at the little flag atop the Faust. Strangely, it is pointing south, belying the beautiful weather we are having. Perhaps it is to become cooler in the next few days. This San Francisco weather can continue all summer as far as I am concerned.
Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheits Hanging Out In Rockford reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.