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Block party

Posted: August 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 10, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Neighbors Doreen Porter, left, and Doreen Breckenridge, middle, chat with block party co-hostess Merry Graham as she brings out a taco salad at her Newhall home.

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Every summer, my husband and I discuss the ins and outs of hosting a block party. The problem is, it always ends there.

This summer it was different. I was caught off-guard one day when I received a call from an old acquaintance.

“Hi Merry, this is Deborah: I’m not sure if you remember me, but guess where I just moved.” I stalled a moment, waiting for the answer. “I moved to the bottom of your hill. Let’s have a block party!” I ecstatically affirmed, “Yes.”

There is something wonderful about block parties. Perhaps it hits a nostalgic chord in our hearts or fulfills a quest to connect with our neighbors. Or maybe we just love the food. Whatever reason stirs your soul or tummy, partnering with neighbors to make a block party happen is worth it. However, any party takes time and resources, so I stated my stipulations, “I’ll host the party at my house if you do the invites.”

My friend took on her job in a serious way. Ms. PR decided to invite four streets worth of neighbors. Door to door, she delivered invitations: Come to a block-party barbecue. Bring a side dish or dessert; we will provide the meat. Please RSVP to Merry or Deborah.

Are you very prompt in your RSVPs? Well, neither were our neighbors. A week before the party, Deborah and I discussed the RSVP list. A small party with three other families would join us for the barbecue, and I was fine with that.
Deborah, it seemed, had a greater vision. She mounted a large poster on every corner in our area: BLOCK PARTY this weekend RSVP NOW. Neighbors couldn’t miss the poster with tethered big, red helium balloons. 

Meanwhile, the kitchen was calling me. The role of Chef Merry suits me just fine. That’s why partnering with neighbors to host a block party is so important, to make sure all the jobs get done. A third neighbor stepped in to split barbecuing burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken with my husband. Deborah decorated and brought all the guacamole, chips, salsa and hamburger fixins’.

Others neighbors pitched in with feta and pasta salad, potato salad, gorgeous fruit salads, temping brie cheese and veggie platters, skewered salami, tomato and mozzarella appetizers and baked beans to die for.

I made one appetizer, a black-bean dip. For sides, I made beet salad, roasted corn salad and quinoa salad. And in a nervous sort of way, I wanted one main course done the moment the neighbors walked in, so taco salad filled that spot.

If that wasn’t enough, neighbors generously loaded the dessert table with cheesecake, Rice Krispies, homemade chocolate-chip cookies that my hubby made me stash, cherry pie, chocolate pudding pie, chocolate ice cake and little lemon cakes that were so delicious, I wish I still had some to nibble on.

I experimented on my neighbors by creating a new dessert. I love fresh peach trifles, but I hate peaches browning and getting slimy. I wondered if I could mix peaches in Jell-O to help preserve their texture and color. It worked.

I ran around placing food on table while grabbing quick conversations with too few of neighbors. I didn’t really sit down, but the neighbors were relaxed and sitting for a few hours talking, eating and making great connections.

Ready to create your own block party? Here are some recipes to start.

Main dish taco salad
Serves eight to 10

1 (16 oz) tub sour cream
1 (1.0 oz) package taco seasoning
3 tablespoons finely minced green onion
1/8 cup water
6 cups or 14 oz. chopped romaine lettuce
2 cups chopped cooked chicken
1 dry pint cherry tomatoes
1 (14 oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup fresh or roasted corn kernels
1 cup sliced black olives, drained
½ cup peperroncini rings or slices, mild or hot
1 (8 oz) package Mexican cheese blend
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 bag tortilla chips

Mix sour cream, taco seasoning, green onion and water in a medium bowl and set aside. In a large salad bowl, layer lettuce, chicken, tomatoes, beans, corn, olives, peperroncini, cheese and cilantro. Cover and refrigerate at this point if making ahead of time, up to five hours ahead. Pour sour cream dressing on top of salad and place on a large serving platter.

Scatter tortilla chips around the base of the salad bowl. Right before serving, toss with dressing and crumble tortilla chips on top or serve chips on side.

Tuscan quinoa salad
Serves six

2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
zest from one lemon
1 tablespoon agave syrup or honey
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper seasoning salt
1 cup quinoa, uncooked, rinsed three times
2 cups water
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped sweet red pepper or cherry tomato halves
1 cup quartered marinated artichokes, cut into bite-sized pieces
½ cup sliced California black olives or Kalamata, drained
 1/3 cup roasted and salted almonds, chopped
1/2 cup chopped dried currants
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1 tablespoon fresh minced tarragon or fresh basil

In a small bowl, whisk until well-mixed vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, lemon zest, agave, garlic, salt and lemon pepper. Set aside.

In a large pot, combine quinoa, water, garlic, and salt. Bring quinoa to a vigorous boil, lower heat to simmer, cover and cook for 13 minutes. Remove from heat, leave lid on to steam for five minutes. Pour into large salad bowl to cool.

Pour vinaigrette over quinoa, and add red peppers or tomatoes, artichokes, olives, almonds, currants, parsley, chives, and tarragon. Refrigerate for three hours or serve immediately. 

Pickled beet, onion and red-cabbage salad
Serves six to seven

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red onion (about 2 cups thinly sliced)
1 jar (16 oz) whole pickled beets
1 jar (16 oz) sliced pickled beets
1 jar (16 oz) pickled red cabbage
1/4 cup fresh chopped chives
Balsamic vinegar

In a large skillet add red onions and olive oil, stir occasionally cook on medium high for five minutes.

Drain beet juice and red cabbage juice from jars into the onions, bring to a boil on high, and then cook onions on low for about five or seven more minutes or until well stewed.

Pour onion mixture into a large salad bowl, and add whole beets and red cabbage. Sprinkle with chives. Taste and drizzle with balsamic vinegar if desired.

 
Blueberry and peach jiggles trifle
Serves 12

1 large box peach gelatin
2 cups boiling water
5 peaches, peeled, pitted, chopped
1 (6 oz) box vanilla instant pudding
2 cups milk
2 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup blueberry preserves
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 large packaged angel food cake, cut in cubes
1/2 cup fresh raspberries, optional

Sprinkle peach gelatin in a 9-inch by 13-inch glass baking pan. Pour boiling water over Jell-O and stir to mix well. Cool two minutes and stir in peaches.

Refrigerate for three hours or up until six hours. Cut into 1-inch cubes. Meanwhile, beat on low pudding mix and milk for one minute, and then beat for one minute on high.

Cover and refrigerate pudding if you aren’t ready to make trifle. (Pudding can be made one day ahead). Mix blueberries and blueberry preserves, cover and set aside.

Right before assembling the trifle: In a large mixing bowl, whip cream for one minute, add extract and powdered sugar and whip until fluffy.

Layer half angel food cake cubes, half pudding, half peach cubes, half whipped cream and all of the blueberries.

Repeat layering, ending with whipped cream and a few peach cubes. Garnish with raspberries if desired. 

Merry Graham is a Newhall resident, fantastic home cook and winner of numerous recipe contests.

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