Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Best Birthday-warming Barbecue!

I don't remember when I began toying with the idea of having an actual housewarming party, but I wanted to have something to look forward to, and a sort of goal that we could work toward, with all that we'd been doing.  Plus, we already started having some people over a few times.  I also figured that my 30th birthday would fall perfectly on the 3-month mark of move-in, so it seemed like good timing for hosting a big fat celebration.

There are a few birthday parties that I remember in my life.  The earliest one was probably my fifth birthday.  Mom and Dad threw me a birthday party at Discovery Zoom (like a Chuck E. Cheese sort of place) and invited my whole kindergarten class from Montessori School.  I don't really remember any of the kids, but I definitely remember the awesome handmade pinata and how special I felt that day.  I don't remember having another one until my 18th, which was planned in collaboration with two other girls in my high school class who also had October birthdays.  We had a gathering at my apartment-style student housing at UCI - it was pretty major, because I was finally out of the house and living life as an "adult."  I got my first big-ticket gift: an iPod Nano, which my friends had all chipped in for.  The next big one after that was my rather ratchet 21st, when I tried to take 21 shots of the worst alcohol that I proudly purchased myself at the Ralph's by USC.  The night ended poorly, I think the last thing I remember was falling into the cardboard box that we had designated for recycling.  Onto the next chapter of my life - 25.  I was living with Wes and happily engaged by this time, and we squeezed at least ten people into our tiny apartment kitchen and rolled fresh pasta in many shapes and sizes!  Then, we had a carbalicious time tasting them all.  Since I am finally neither renting a place nor interested in getting drunk for the first time since I graduated high school, it is about damn time to throw the biggest and most sophisticated party in the history of me.

At first, Wes was a little hesitant of this ambitious undertaking, but I think he was 100% in when he realized that this meant that he could buy the smoker of his dreams and perfect his pitmaster skills.  Literally a few days after the decision was made, he reported to me that he found someone who was selling the smoker brand-new on OfferUp for an amazing price.  This does tend to happen with Wes.  He sets his heart on something, and then he finds a deal almost instantaneously... anyway, he borrows my car and drives away.  He comes home with the perfect little workhorse of a smoker that it is: the Traeger Timberline 850.  By the end of the day, it was all set up and standing under our tree in all of its glory.

Anyway, we decided to invite about a hundred people to our house.  We don't know how it happened, but the guest list just kept adding up.  It was pretty fun to see the RSVP's roll in.  Then, we realized what we had done... cooking all of the food didn't scare us as much as having to buy tons of folding tables and chairs.  And trash cans.  And a huge ice chest.  Tablecloths.  Lawn games.  Etc.  Did we even have enough space in the refrigerator?  Hmm...

Luckily, our good friends who have been throwing parties for a while lent us their tables and chairs, and I thought about buying picnic blankets as an alternative option.  While planning out our menu, we completed projects and realized some plans that we had always envisioned for the house.  Those included a very large painting for the living room that I had to literally take entire Saturdays standing in front of the easel, a side table that Wes built out of our tree slab wedding cake stand, a live edge coffee table that Wes built from a reclaimed tree slab that we had been saving for years, the gallery wall in the hallway of travel photos, the collage of collectibles from trips, painted corn hole boards, and certain living room statement pieces.  We definitely felt the urgency to decorate when we put the housewarming party on the map, but it was a fun and exciting sort of urgency.

We had nineteen racks of ribs, two large briskets, three steelhead trout filets, and a ton of side dishes.  Wes had to wake up multiple times throughout the night before the party to literally baby his briskets--spraying them, wrapping them, rotating them, checking on their temperature... my friend who just had a baby joked that it essentially was like caring for a newborn.  I couldn't start anything until the day before either, to ensure that the sides were all fresh.  I made pounds and pounds of potato salad, Southwest corn salad, the smoked trout dip using trout that Wes smoked, and a roasted squash medley.  My arms were pretty tired, and I remember that I had barely sat down all day.  Thankfully, on the day of the party, we didn't run out of anything....except for brisket.  I guess the people we invited know where the goods are!

Wes's new toy - brand new off OfferUp for a deep discount!  He would always caress and ogle the Traegers on our trips to Home Depot, so I guess he got his wish.

Wes started making the ribs (19 racks) about a week in advance.  He had to do it in four rounds in order to give the ribs optimal space.  He cleaned them up (pulled off the membrane on every single rack), rubbed it with a blend of two Meat Church rubs - one sweet and one savory.  Then, each batch was smoked with a blend of hickory, mesquite, and cherry wood for four hours (two and a half hours unwrapped and one and a half hours wrapped in foil), with a few spritzes of apple cider vinegar here and there.

Wes suggested that I make my corn salad.  We knew that canned corn just wouldn't taste as good as fresh, so poor Wes had to shuck every last kernel off our 30 cobs of corn.  I don't even know how all of this fit in our fridge!

Wes smoked the steelhead trout about two weeks in advance.  He let it cure with salt and sugar overnight, compressed under the weight of some cast iron skillets.  The next morning, he rinsed it off and he let it sit out of the fridge for a few hours so that it naturally develops pectin, a thin layer that allows the smoke flavor to better absorb.  Before putting it into the smoker, he drizzled some honey and spread it on evenly with a brush.  Finally, it was smoked with applewood. We spent that day hanging out at home - he smoking, I painting.  I also sampled all of the best (fattiest) parts of the trout when it was done, sorry not sorry!  We vacuum packed and froze it after.

Wes was feeling ambitious and decided to go for the creme de la creme of barbecue.  Ribs and chicken are great and all, but he really wanted to go over the top and challenge himself.  So, the weekend before the party, we hit up Costco and found two perfectly shaped prime briskets, about 17 pounds each.  The worker even brought out a fresh case and let us choose first!  This definitely looked like way too much meat, but little did I know that the brisket would run out first.  After trimming the fat, injecting them with beef broth, and rubbing them (Meat Church's Holy Cow) we let them sit for an hour before putting them into the smoker.  The cook time was different between the two, since they were differently shaped, but Wes was very attentive to the differences - going by temperature and feel.  Brisket is very tricky because the cuts are uneven and each piece of meat reacts differently.  Wes started the long smoking process (15-18 hours) the evening before the party, so that they could cook overnight and be totally fresh when everyone arrives.  He had to set different alarms to wake up throughout the night to keep checking on them, using his Traeger app's built in alarm, the Thermoworks temperature probe alarm, and just manually setting alarms on his phone.  

I was, as always, in charge of the sides.  I thought a lot about what side dishes would go well for a late summer / early Autumn barbecue.  I wanted them to be seasonal, colorful, flavorful, and healthy.  For sure, I had to make my trusty red-skin potato salad, which is a recipe that I've been using for years.  It's a very bright potato salad packed with celery, parsley, and green onion.  Super addicting and offsets the heavy barbecue meats well!

For the sake of being seasonal, I decided that there had to be a side dish with some Autumnal squash.  We decided on a medley of butternut squash, yellow squash, and zucchini, roasted with Italian seasoning, sage, and olive oil.  It was super easy to make (especially when you get the butternut squash pre-peeled and chopped!), just throw it into the oven and roast it up!

Similarly, we wanted to honor the ending of the summer season and do something with summer corn. I took all of that shucked corn and added diced red bell peppers, red onions, cilantro, black beans, some red wine vinegar, cumin, salt, and pepper.

Now I know how it feels to cook for a village!

Wes smoked six whole chickens the morning of.  At this point, the smoker had been working non-stop for 24 hours.  He rubbed each one and trussed the legs on the morning of the party.  He was very familiar with what to do.  He smoked the chicken with a hickory wood blend, and then pulled them into shreds.

We bought some last-minute things, like pillows for the couch (that I had been eyeing for weeks anyway), cute hand towels, and some small plants for the bathroom.  We also hung up our last decorations, like the wreath on the front door, the impromptu wooden "Adventure is Out There" sign (consolation project for a ruined doormat --note to self, stencil and spraypaint don't work on doormats), my paintings, and the birdhouse that we bought from a craftsman in Bishop on our last backpacking trip.  We shoved random stuff into drawers and behind doors, and we threw some flowers on the front steps and on the dining table.  I also clipped some eucalyptus leaves from our tree and stuck a few sprigs in a vase of water for our bedroom - random details like that.  Wes also treated the grass ahead of time to keep little bugs away, since people would be sitting and playing on it, and he also mowed it several days in advance to get it looking and feeling optimal.  He's turned into quite the lawn whisperer.  It was super awesome to see everything come together, after the past three months of hard work.  Even more importantly, our housewarming celebration was truly the culmination of all that we have worked and saved for ever since we got married.

 The party went really well - maybe even better than anticipated!  The weather was perfect, and we definitely had enough seating for all.  There were a few bumps in the road (like, pre-cut butternut squash that somehow went bad the day before the party, and frozen ribs that were taking forever to rewarm), but in the end, the food was out on time, and there was an abundance of it.  We also had enough drinks and the lawn games were a hit!


It was so nice to see all of the children playing in our yard and adults being like kids, lying on the picnic blankets and making themselves comfortable in the house.  It was amazing to have friends drive for miles to exchange hugs and well-wishes - precious, though fleeting.  I wished that I could have cloned myself that day!  I felt like I was totally delirious--someone caught me saying "happy birthday" back to everybody (maybe it was also due to the fact that I had not eaten a thing).  Wes, on the other hand, commented that he was very satisfied with his role as chef and food-server - people came to him one at a time as they lined up for food, and he was able to stay stationed in one place with the guarantee of seeing and talking to each guest in an orderly fashion.  He also got to snack while he carved the meats.  So clever, so clever.

We asked Caroline (@carolineadobo) to make our cake.  When I emailed her, she sent me a whole list of delicious options!  After much deliberation, I went with the earl grey vanilla with whipped mascarpone, but the ube macapuno was a very close second.  She is such a talented baker and cook, we were really honored to have one of her creations to share with all.  Confession: I have been following her on social media for as long as I can remember (like even before I had a Smartphone, when people used to all blog and Instagram wasn't yet a thing) - though we have known each other personally for a couple of years now.  It's just crazy how everything sort of came full circle.



I can't describe the flood of emotions that overcame me when Margaret stopped me in the middle of one of my little guided home tours and made me go outside.  I opened the door and saw an arc of all of our friends around a folding table that was dragged into the middle, with the cakes on it.  Wes was standing there with a lighter in his hand and my brother and sister had their cameras out, my parents were at the front, and everyone said, "Happy Birthday!"  I was speechless, I remember that I pretty much backed up to the nearest wall that I could find and couldn't stop laughing as everybody sang.  Looking back at the pictures, I was totally out of control.  I remember I shouted at Wes to join me in the limelight - it felt so awkwardly wonderful.  I thanked everyone for coming and demanded a Go-Pro group photo right then and there, just like at our wedding ceremony as we were exchanging our vows!  There were so many people all spread out that we had to take two photos - too bad Wes closed his eyes in the second one!

I know that our family members barely got any of my attention during the actual event, but we definitely could not have pulled it off without them.  They came early and did the countless little things that would have been hard for us to get to in the morning frenzy.  And then afterward, they discreetly cleaned up while we continued to entertain the last of our guests.  They stayed until dark and made sure that we were good to go before they left.  Best of all, they took these priceless photos from the day with all kinds of cameras - mirrorless, DSLR, mobile, you name it!  Putting together this blog post to recap one of the biggest days of my life has been such a pleasure and a true team effort.

We could really could feel the love this day.  It almost felt like our wedding day.  When we finally sat down to our dinner of copious amounts of leftovers, we discussed making this an annual tradition.  It was fun and we'd totally do it all again, but the occasion will simply just be to have people over for barbecue--not necessarily for my birthday.  I'm not sure that I'd be willing to stand in the spotlight like that again anytime soon...maybe in another decade!

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