Improvisational dinners are nothing new. Friends and families often have checked with each other, compared what ingredients are on hand, and then come together to create a shared meal.
But for several years, a group of friends in the Lubec to Eastport area have been hosting improvisational dinners with a twist: There is no checking with each other ahead of time.
“Just go into your refrigerator and bring what you have — the half jar of olives, the lettuce that only has one day left, part of package of cheese, a little juice,” T.J. Goetting of Lubec advises.
It sounds a bit careless, even wacky, and you might expect that some of these experiments end up on the compost pile, but surprisingly just the opposite happens. The results are exquisite gourmet dinners that everyone talks about for months — but that rarely can be repeated.
Last month, a kitchen island full of disparate ingredients was transformed into rhubarb barbecued spare ribs, sauteed fruit with cherry rum, fresh pea and pasta salad with a mustard and lemon dressing, and a faux-margarita drink in a glass rimmed with sugar and cloves.
Goetting started the improv dinners a couple of years ago to celebrate his birthday, and they have taken on a life of their own that’s repeated at least once a month. Last week, the improv dinners went public for the first time. Goetting and Brenda Barker of the Labor of Love nutritional kitchen in Eastport threw open the kitchen doors and invited any and all to clean out their refrigerators and show up for dinner.
Nine people — with a wide range of cooking experience, from none to lots — brought whatever they could pull from their kitchens and placed the items on one long table at the Labor of Love. There are only three rules: 1. Have fun. 2. Use as many ingredients as creatively as possible. 3. Have more fun.
The ingredients presented the challenge: sesame noodles, English muffins, Bacos, fresh tortellini, spring roll skins, three varieties of cheese, cans of mackerel, chicken broth, salsa and capers, jars of chutney and Raye’s Mustard, fresh broccoli, bananas, carrots, spinach, rhubarb, mangoes, fiddleheads, strawberries, mint, Tide Mill Creamery yogurt, onions, basil and a pound of sauteed chicken and sweet sausage.
As the amateur cooks looked over the selection, you could almost see the light bulbs go on when a culinary idea struck. Everyone brought their own life experience to the pantry, and each one saw the possibilities differently. Fearlessness and creativity were encouraged: This ingredient seems familiar. So does this one. Hmmmmm, what would happen if they were combined. Who knew that a pureed can of mixed fruit with the juice of a lime would taste like apricot sorbet?
“It’s like you’ve been snowed in for seven days and this is all that is left,” Goetting joked.
A cooperative mood began to simmer along with the food.
“Has anyone claimed this basil?” one cook asked.
“Does anyone want to share an onion?” asked another.
This was a kitchenful of inspired cooks. When one guest showed up with fresh chives and mint from her garden, a chorus of “Oooooooo” sounded through the room. As one dish was removed from the oven, Goetting raised his arms wide and shouted, “And the fans went wild!”
This was really turning into a lot of fun.
Ingredients were chopped, sauteed, blended, simmered and boiled. Paul Grinshaw of Perry was making broccoli tortellini alfredo. Brenda Barker was rolling fresh spring rolls and creating an impromptu peanut sauce. Goetting was preparing baked mangoes with six different toppings. As he put black bean sauce on one, he remarked, “Doesn’t that look a bit like a bear turd?”
Georgie Kendall of Perry combined canned mackerel, onions, mushrooms, capers and a bit of Ragu pizza sauce.
“It’s a south African dish. Well, not really,” she said. Tasting as she stirred, Kendall’s eyes lit up.
“Oh my God, this is going to be a fabulous meal,” she said.
Grimshaw moved on to his second dish: zucchini with garlic pesto.
And in the end, the most used ingredient of the meal turned out to be laughter.
“We can’t even make the basics,” Ameena Vizcarrondo, 13, said of herself and a friend, Dilon Townsend, 13, both of Eastport. “Not even boxed macaroni and cheese. We need to learn.”
With a little help from more seasoned cooks, they learned fast. The duo created a chilled fiddlehead salad with balsamic and Dijon dressing.
“I never, ever would have used these ingredients,” Townsend said, “never mind put them all together.”
Fern Garrapy of Eastport needed a bit of help creating a rhubarb sauce for her sauteed chicken.
“Start with an onion, add balsamic and brown sugar and then the rhubarb,” Baker suggested.
The exchange of ideas became an integral part of the experience — cooking cooperatively while laughing hysterically.
And the buffet table began filling up. In the end, the nine cooks created 21 dishes. Barker put a vase of white lilacs on the table and then went out into the driveway and filled canning jars halfway with stones. Sticking a candle in each jar, the mood was created.
The cooks — a cottage renter, a shopkeeper, an architectural engineer, an attorney’s clerk, a scuba diver, two teenagers and a computer programmer — sat down to eat, and the magic happened … again.
“Every time we do this, we are amazed at what the results are,” Goetting said. “We look at each other after tasting the food and say, ‘How did this happen?’”
“It is just unbelievable,” Christine Vizcarrando of Eastport said. “Who would have thought of some of these combinations?”
“This is so much fun,” Garrapy added.
Tasting Kendall’s African mackerel, one guest said, “There’s something else in there. What is that?”
“The bait the mackerel was going for,” Goetting answered.
Plates were emptied, second helpings piled on and, eventually, people sat back sated.
“Well,” Barker said. “We did it again. What a meal. How wonderful.”
The Labor of Love Nutritional Center is offering cooking classes throughout the summer to help support its mission as a regional food pantry and provide education for healthy eating. Classes already have been held in bread and pie making. For information, contact the pantry at 853-2373.