A few weeks back, we had the privilege of cooking for a group of people who felt strongly enough about Virginia City's historic preservation to throw down $120 per plate. The dinner was part of the "Parties of the Year" series to aid in the ongoing restoration of the Fourth Ward School. It was held at the St. Mary's Art Center, originally the town's hospital and itself the beneficiary of much hard work and harder earned dollars.
As in the glory days of the Silver Barons, there was champagne and oysters, filet with truffles, and desserts with French names. Toni Tenille surprised everyone by showing up to help with the service.
Meanwhile, back at the Fourth Ward School, the Abraham Lincoln "Forever Free" exhibit was going on. The place was alive with students from the high school drama class, handsomely decked in period attire, preparing for their part of the show, which included re-enactments of Lincoln's speeches and debates over abolition.
And a few blocks away, the Piper's Opera House was tuning up for its musical production of Jekyl and Hyde, also designed to help finance its restoration. It was as if the whole town was steppin' out. That's when it hit me. There's a lot more to this place than meets the eye of the occasional visitor. There's community.
Another thing you wouldn't expect to find here in the middle of beef country is vegetarians, but we get them. The dish which follows includes two of the trilogy of early Mexican ingredients - squash and corn - the third being beans.
Bear in mind that before the arrival of the Europeans in the mid 1500s with their practice of raising animals for food, there wasn't much meat on the menu. With the exception of the unfortunate rabbit, fawn or fowl to wander into their sights, the natives of Mexico were for the most part vegetarians.
Chayote squash, known as merliton in the Cajun world, is light green and pear shaped. Although we use this casserole as a side dish for specials, it could be served with a salad and warm tortillas as a light lunch. In this case you may want to dress it up with a little pool of smoked tomato-jalapeño sauce - recipe follows.
Chayote and Corn Casserole
Serves 8 as a side
Preheat oven to 375
For the sauce
6 T butter
1 large yellow onion, diced.
3 fresh serranos or jalapenos, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
6 T flour
2 1/2 cups milk
4 T chopped cilantro
1/2 t Mexican oregano
2 t salt, approximately
In a small sauce pan, melt the butter and sauté the onions, chilies and garlic over medium heat until soft. Add the flour and stir to combine. Continue stirring and cooking for a minute or two. Add the milk slowly, stirring until smooth. Bring to a simmer and cook for a couple minutes until thickened and smooth. Remove from heat, and add the cilantro, oregano and salt. Taste for salt.
For the vegetables
6 chayotes, about 3 pounds
4 ears corn, cut from the cob
1 1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
1 cups dry bread crumbs
1/2 grated Parmesan
1 ounce melted butter
Peel the chayote, cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the soft pit, and slice the squash as thin as possible. Using a 12" buttered casserole, put down a layer of the squash. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a layer of corn then sprinkle with Jack cheese. Continue layering until all has been used.
Pour the hot sauce over the squash. Add a little milk if necessary to bring it even with the top layer.
The dish can be made up to this point and allowed to sit, covered, for a couple hours. Mix the bread crumbs and Parmesan with the melted butter and sprinkle over the casserole. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the chayotes are tender when pierced with a fork and the top is lightly browned and crisp. Serve immediately.
Smoked Tomato-Jalapeno Sauce
Makes about 3 cups
12 Roma tomatoes
1 small yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
3 jalapeno chilis
2 T Basalmic vinegar
1 T brown sugar
2 ounces cold butter, cut into pieces
Core the tomatoes and cut them in half lengthwise. Peel the onion and cut into 1/2" slices. Stem and seed the jalapenos. Place the tomatoes and onions on the rack of your smoker or charcoal grill. Place the chilis and garlic on a small piece of foil that has been pierced several times with a fork or knife and place the foil on the rack. Depending on what you're using for a smoker (a real smoker or a Weber type grill), shoot for a low temperature (180) to allow a longer cooking time. Use a small amount of wood-about one ounce. Cook until the skins begin to shrivel.
In a blender, puree the smoked vegetables along with about a half cup of warm water. Strain through a medium sieve (or similar strainer) into a small sauce pan. Add the Balsamic and sugar and bring to a simmer, skimming away any foam from the surface. Turn off heat and add the butter stirring constantly until incorporated. Taste for salt. The sauce will keep for 3 to 4 days refrigerated. Reheat slowly for service.
Brian Shaw and his wife, Ardie, own the Cafe del Rio, 394 S. C St. in Virginia City.