When friends get together, good food happens

LOCAL GOURMET GROUP CELEBRATES THREE DECADES

Special to the Idaho StatesmanMay 31, 2014 

  • Tips for starting a gourmet group

    • Select individuals with a willingness to cook and try different foods. No fussy eaters.

    • Have more than just food and wine in common.

    • Make sure everyone is committed to making the group a priority and having fun.

    • Decide how frequently you wish to gather. We've found that five times a year (one dinner per couple) works well for our busy schedules.

    • Determine the right number of people for your group.

    • Choose dinner dates at the end of each year for the upcoming year.

    • When hosting, consider the menu, the setting and a special gift for your friends.

    • Be willing to try everything on the table. Most of us have learned to enjoy a wide range of tastes, textures and ethnic foods over the years.

    • Have fun thinking outside the box for dinner themes, locations and foods.

    • When first starting out, don't try to do too much or attempt difficult and fussy recipes. As you gain experience and confidence, it will naturally evolve into trying more challenging dishes.

    • Bring what you prepared, regardless!

    Source: Merine Heberger

  • Connect with other foodies

    Here are a few food-and-wine groups, cooking classes and farm-to-fork dinners in the Boise area.

    THE ITALIAN AMERICAN CLUB OF BOISE celebrates Italian heritage in Idaho with year-round activities that include specialty dinners, cooking classes, bocce ball and golf. And you don't even have to be Italian to join.

    The friendly folks at the TREASURE VALLEY WINE SOCIETY host several events throughout the year, including monthly wine tastings.

    THE BASQUE MARKET on Boise's Basque Block will be hosting a cooking class called Tasty Tapas and Sangria on June 25. Make reservations soon if you plan on attending because these classes sell out quickly.

    FUEL FOR THE SOUL offers a variety of seasonal cooking classes in Boise's North End, but these events often sell out way in advance. Chef Titti Lancedelli recommends going to her website and getting on the mailing list.

    PEACEFUL BELLY, a local organic farm, will be hosting three farm-to-fork dinners in August (21,22 and 23) at its beautiful spread in Dry Creek Valley near Hidden Springs..

  • Recipes from the gourmet group

    Grilled Leg of Lamb with Orange, Honey and Dijon Marinade

    Recipe courtesy of Daisi Stevens (Lava Lake Lamb) and Alan Sands

    Makes enough for 10-12 people

    Leg of lamb, five to seven pounds, butterflied (most butchers will do this for you)

    Season the lamb with salt and pepper to taste

    Marinade:

    2 cups Dijon mustard

    3 oranges, juiced

    1/4 cup fresh rosemary sprigs, coarsely chopped

    2 teaspoons ginger, chopped

    2 teaspoons garlic, chopped

    1/2 cup honey

    1/2 cup soy sauce

    1/2 cup olive oil

    Mix together the marinade ingredients and pour over butterflied leg of lamb. Marinate under refrigeration for three to four hours. Once your grill is hot, cook the lamb for about 20 to 22 minutes (flipping it about halfway through), which should be about medium-rare at that point. Use an internal meat thermometer to check the temperature. It should read about 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare, 140 degrees for medium. Let the lamb rest on a cutting board for about 10 minutes, slice and serve immediately.

    Idaho Chocolate Cake

    From the Best of the Best from Idaho Cookbook

    1 (four-ounce) Idaho russet potato, peeled and grated

    2 cups sour cream

    1 3/4 cups cake flour

    1 3/4 cups sugar

    3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa

    1/2 cup unsalted butter

    2 large eggs

    1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

    1 teaspoon vanilla

    1/2 teaspoon salt

    Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a nine-inch by 13-inch baking pan and dust with flour. Place grated potato in work bowl. Combine all remaining ingredients and add half of the mixture to potato. Mix for three minutes, scraping bowl once. Transfer mixture to a larger bowl, add the balance of sour cream mixture, and beat an additional three minutes. Scrape sides of bowl once. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 35-40 minutes or until cake tester inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool completely in pan on rack. Invert onto cake dish and frost, if desired.

The kitchen at Alan and Lois Sands' East Boise home becomes a hive of activity when people start to show up for a recent dinner party - one of five theme dinners that this fun-loving group of five couples holds each year.

"It's hard sometimes to come up with five dates when we can all get together. We're busy people," Merine Heberger says, as she places a smoked kokanee cheesecake appetizer on the counter next to some open bottles of Idaho wine.

She and her husband, Roy, are original members of this gourmet group, which has been going strong for more than 30 years. The other members are Chuck Blair and Signe Sather-Blair, Sam and Dorothy Mattise, Bill and Colleen Mullins, and Alan and Lois Sands.

On this night in March, these close friends gather once again for another dinner party, this one aptly themed "Made in Idaho." The menu includes savory salmon cheesecake, grilled leg of Lava Lake lamb, Basque-style roasted potatoes, North Idaho spoon bread, mixed greens, asparagus, and chocolate cake (made with russet potatoes), served with a scoop of Cloverleaf Creamery ice cream.

"We haven't done an all-Idaho theme before. It was fun gathering all the local wines, beers, veggies and meats," says Alan Sands, a semi-retired wildlife biologist who works with sage grouse and other upland game birds.

The Sands joined this Boise-based gourmet club about 10 years ago.

"We were the late-comers to the group. We felt lucky to get in. These people have become such great friends," Alan Sands says.

After enjoying the cheesecake and a glass or two of wine, the group makes its way to the dinner table for a bombardment of Idaho-inspired dishes.

Once everyone finds their place at the table (and spouses can't sit next to each other; that's one of the group's rules), they raise their glasses for a toast.

"Well, we got 30 years together and we are all still alive, and we mostly have all our parts. Here's to another 30 years," Chuck Blair exclaims, then everyone clinks glasses and begins to pass platters of food around.

The conversation quickly turns to reminiscing about some earlier dinners, especially the inaugural get-together.

"Remember our first dinner?" Chuck Blair asks the group.

He's referring to a sea bass dish with a white wine-butter reduction sauce that didn't turn out so well.

"That one flopped. It was probably our most ambitious dinner. I remember Roy and Merine almost killed each other over the dessert (a dish they were responsible for bringing)," Chuck Blair recalls, as the table bursts with laughter.

Over the years, this loquacious group of foodie friends have put on around 150 theme dinners from around the globe, including Best of Baja, Greek Cooking for the Gods and The Basque Table, to name a few, with recipes culled from various cookbooks and personal favorites.

Of course, food and drink is the focal point at the well-planned dinner parties, but the ties that bind these friends go well beyond the dinner table.

These culinary shindigs started in 1983 when a group of newcomers to the Boise area decided to gather several times a year for themed dinner parties.

"They (members of the group) tell me it was my wife and I who came up with the idea. I can't remember exactly how the whole thing came together," Chuck Blair says.

The original members of the group included Roy and Merine Heberger, Chuck Blair and Signe Sather-Blair, and Sam and Dorothy Mattise.

Chuck, Sam and Signe met while in graduate school at South Dakota State University, where they all studied wildlife biology. Sam was the first in the group to earn his master's degree, and he soon moved to Idaho to work with wild horses, a job he retired from about a decade ago.

Chuck and Signe, both retired wildlife biologists as well, who fell in love in graduate school, moved to Idaho after Sam saw a posting for a job and told Chuck about it, at which point, the new couple loaded up the car and headed west.

These young colleagues met the Hebergers (Roy is also a retired wildlife biologist), and the gourmet club dinners were launched. Bill and Colleen Mullins were soon brought into the fold.

"Roy and I met at a professional society meeting. One night, after an event, we were sitting around having beers, and Roy volunteered to help sod the yard at my new house. Our relationship kind of grew from there," recalls Bill Mullins, the only native Idahoan in the group, who retired as a water-quality biologist in 1999 to pursue a career as a wildlife photographer.

Right away, the gourmet club established rules for continuity's sake, a set of guidelines that are still followed to this day. Most importantly, they all make time in their busy schedules to get together in December to plan the upcoming year's dinners.

"We make these dates sacred. We are committed to doing this, and that's what makes it so successful," said Dorothy Mattise, a retired nurse.

Once the dates are knocked out, each of the five couples is responsible for organizing their appointed dinner, which includes gathering the recipes and assigning one dish for each couple to bring.

"No matter how your dish turns out, you have to bring it anyway," explains Merine Heberger, who serves as the group's secretary, so to speak, a task she's good at due to her former career as a corporate administrator.

Last year, the group celebrated 30 years together with a trip to the Oregon Coast, where they rented a vacation home at Manzanita for five days. They all had fun playing at the beach and gathering foodstuffs for a big seafood dinner.

"The guys chartered a boat to go fishing, but they only caught one fish. It was a $600 salmon," jokes Colleen Mullins, an air-transport nurse in Boise.

Their feast included (one) king salmon, shrimp, steamed crab, cioppino (tomato-based seafood stew) and pan-seared crab cakes.

"It was an excellent dinner. We had a wonderful time. The house had a beautiful view, and the sunsets were gorgeous," Merine Heberger says.

Traveling and playing together have always been a cornerstone of these enduring friendships. The group takes whitewater-rafting trips in Idaho nearly every summer, and many of them have traveled together elsewhere over the years.

"We have a pact to raft until we are 80," Dorothy Mattise declares.

Besides rafting, fishing is another activity the group enjoys doing together. The guys wish they had brought Signe Sather-Blair on the boat in Oregon because of her prowess as an angler.

"Signe could catch a fish out of a toilet bowl," quips Bill Mullins, referring to a trip they took to the Kenai River in Alaska a few years ago. "She landed a 67-pound salmon up there. We could have used her on the boat on the Oregon trip. "

Some of these close friends have even traveled abroad in recent years.

"Several of us did a three-week trip to Peru," Chuck Blair recalls.

The trip to South America spawned a few theme dinners when they returned, many of which featured root vegetables, a staple of the Peruvian diet dating back to Incan times and beyond.

"Markets down there have lots of potatoes, about 20 different kinds in all sizes and colors," Chuck Blair says.

"We even had guinea pig at someone's house in Peru, but we didn't repeat that one here."

Recently, in April, the group met again for another dinner party, this time at the Hebergers' house. The theme was The Gathering of Friends, an apropos name, to say the least.

The globally inspired menu paid close attention to the spring season. It included guacamole shrimp; ginger-glazed salmon; wild rice with asparagus; spinach, strawberry and pecan salad; rosemary bread; and chocolate-covered strawberry cream puffs.

The menus have definitely evolved over the years, as everyone in the group has become more proficient in the kitchen. But most of the members are amazed that the dinners are still going strong, with no sign of slowing down.

"I don't know if we ever imagined 30 years ago that it would go on this long," Chuck Blair says.

James Patrick Kelly, a restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks "Moon Idaho" and "Moon Spotlight Boise." He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.

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