Hanging Out in Rockford: Special food for special people—part two

Sunday comes, and I do the normal Sunday morning things. I settle the books from the night before, etc. I drive down to South Main to the Gray’s IGA to pick up a few things: some whole cream, some whole-wheat tortillas, fresh chorizo (a last-minute decision, fueled by the fact they make scratch homemade chorizo), yogurt and cucumbers fill my little basket.

Then, it is back to the Irish Rose to wait for Troy to show up. Before long, Maria is in the kitchen making bread, and then Troy is there. I start by boiling potatoes. Troy is making what he calls a fruit salsa. He stopped at Logli’s to buy various kinds of fresh fruit, including blackberries, Asian pears and blood oranges, and he is whipping it all together in the food processor. I carefully peel and remove the seeds from the cucumbers, cutting them in quarters and then slicing them on the bias. Then, I combine them with garlic, the yogurt, lemon juice and fresh mint. I am making a sauce for my cucumber salad based on tzatziki, the famous Greek sauce found in America mostly on gyros, only a little more authentic than what you usually find.

Then, the boiled potatoes are ready to make the tarmasalata (fish roe and potato salad), and I first peel them. Normally, I would leave the skins on for more flavor, but for the plate presentation, I want them peeled so the final product is bright pink. The pink comes from lumpfish roe that has been stained with food coloring to make it red. I mash the potatoes, and combine them with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, the fish roe and a little salt. To the salad I add a combination of yellow and red onions, sliced very thin—the red onions for color, the yellow for the traditional taste. Maria fries the whole-wheat tortillas into chips for me, and then I am out of the kitchen, leaving the real work to Troy.

I get to sit down with the guests while Troy slaves in the kitchen. I am sitting at the bar sipping Cycle Gladiator Pinot Grigio when Jim Hughes arrives, sans Gayle. Karen Elyea is out of commission with a bad back sprain, so she is not expected. Kerry Knodle calls on his cell phone to say his computer has gone nuts, so he is going to be a little late. Jim Thacker and Elizabeth turn up, and then Jean and Darcy. We sit and stand around the end of the bar talking. After Kerry arrives, we move to a large table in the front of the bar.

The meal starts with a simple Caprese salad, fresh basil, sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic vinegar and (in our version) truffle oil. Almost unnoticeably, Troy has flaked fresh, sweet red pepper on the plate. I am in heaven. Darcy remarks about the subtle addition of the red pepper. I am already very proud. We switch to Cycle Gladiator Chardonnay.

Then, it is my turn to show off. The next plate is two tiny chops cut from the racks I bought at Robert’s. Troy has rubbed them with mustard for a glaze, and then cooked them to a perfect pink. On this same plate is an array of the cucumber salad, the tarmasalata and our own hummus (the absolute best in the city), along with the fried whole-wheat tortilla chips, sort of a Greek appetizer plate. I brag that this was my idea, although a lot of the credit goes to Troy’s presentation, which is beautiful. Shortly thereafter, the mayor shows up. We get him sort of a combination plate, combining the two up to this point.

Then, we have the fish course. Pan sautéed New Zealand Bluenose (my favorite fish in the whole world, like a really juicy grouper) with crisply fried calamari, and a Sambuca reduction sauce. Following this is a beautiful veal chop braised in the fruit salsa. With it, we enjoy the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Jim has brought. I don’t even think I am still hungry until I taste it. I eat half of mine, giving the other half to Katy, who is serving us. Then, almost impossibly, we all consume the chocolate mousse served in a wine glass.

Of course, some of this was about eating and having a good time, and some of it was about the business of trying to bring a culinary school to Rockford. Jean and Kerry seem to really hit it off. Jim Hughes indicates the County will try to help. The mayor seems enthused. Everyone has a good time, and that is important when you are trying to accomplish something of this nature.

We are losing a good force in the food business in Rockford—Greg Newell, who writes the column for the Rockford Register Star. Greg and I have had our differences, but he has done a tremendous amount to bring attention to the local restaurant industry. He also showed open-mindedness and a willingness to give places another chance when I prodded him. He will be missed. I hope the Register Star finds someone with his sensibilities to replace him.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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