SUMMERTIME PARTYING is all about outdoor grilling and the thrill of accidentally dripping hamburger juice on bare feet. Those late nights around the fire with friends, telling funny stories over passed bottles of whiskey, are beautiful things, but the bratwursts 'n' bonfires can get a bit repetitive. If you're feeling more ambitious with your outdoor entertaining this year, take a page from traditional summer al fresco feasts borrowed from points around the globe.
The Swedish-Style Crayfish Party
There was once an elusive annual crayfish boil every summer in Portland. You had to know someone who knew someone to find out where it was, contribute a few bucks to the donation bucket, and of course BYOB. Huge vats of mudbugs were boiled along with corn, potatoes, and sausage at level-11 spiciness, and hungry hipsters would eagerly lurch forward as batch after batch were served up on parchment paper stretched across a picnic table.
I don't know whatever happened to that crew, but it's a tradition that needs reviving. I don't want to be a copycat, though, so my plan is to take a Swedish approach rather than the fiery Louisiana route. The Swedes have been throwing summertime crayfish bashes since the 16th century, but there's no need to import. If you really want to be hardcore you can buy traps and creep around the local rivers and lakes at night, using rotted fish and hotdogs as bait, or you could just call some of the city's better crustacean sources—I like ABC Seafood (6509 SE Powell) and OM (3514 SE 76th). (If you're planning on feeding a crowd, though, it's best to work with your sources ahead of time to ensure they'll have enough crawfish for you.)
Once you've acquired the crawdads, the hardest part is over. Boil them live, in eight-pound batches, with 2/3 cup sea salt and a gallon of water, waiting to add both the creatures and a big fistful of fresh dill until your water reaches boiling. The Nordic way is to eat them cold, so after about 10 minutes of cooking, put your pot in a sink half-full of ice water. Renew the ice water every 30 minutes for about two hours, or until the crayfish and broth have cooled. Then simply drain the pot and arrange the crawdads on platters with lemon wedges, more fresh dill, and maybe some aioli on the side if you're feeling fancy.
The traditional accompaniments are fresh bread and cheese, as well as copious amounts of beer and schnapps—and I don't mean Rumple Minze. Try the awesome, fresh-tasting Krogstad Aquavit from local House Spirits Distillery (housespirits.com) instead, and watch out because the stuff is potent. Drunken silliness is part of the tradition, though, as are brightly colored paper lanterns, goofy hats, and drinking songs. But even without the accessories you'll have a surprisingly easy-to-prepare feast that'll be a hell of a lot more memorable than portobello burgers and beer-can chicken. Skål!
The Spanish St. John's Party
Sure, you could just sit around a bonfire drinking. Or! You could get weird with a Spanish midsummer ritual involving medicinal plants, sardines, and burning witch effigies—your call.
Rooted in the pagan traditions of Northern Spain, the Galician St. John's festival is June 23. Spend the previous afternoon foraging plants like fennel, rosemary, and fern—if you really want to prep for this, keep an eye out for the foraging classes offered through organizations like the WildCraft Studio School (wildcraftstudioschool.com), Trackers Earth Portland (trackerspdx.com), and First Ways (firstways.com).
When dinnertime rolls around, grill up whole sardines—simple is best; all you need to accompany the fresh fish is a little sea salt and squirts of lemon. Traditional side dishes include skin-on boiled potatoes and bread—easy peasy. To drink, you'll want to make quiemada, a cross between a punch and a potion. Start with three cups of grappa—Clear Creek Distillery (clearcreekdistillery.com) makes a variety of them. Combine that with a cup of sugar, two tablespoons of whole coffee beans, the stripped peels of three lemons, and six halved cinnamon sticks. Stir the brew over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Make sure all your friends are watching, and then light the stuff on fire with a long match or ignition lighter (needless to say, stand back as far as possible while doing so). After a few minutes, the flame will turn a spooky blue. At this point, put the lid on to extinguish it, then ladle into glasses.
In the meantime, you should get a good bonfire going. To really do it right, this should involve the burning of a dummy (think scarecrow—not plastic!), which represents the devil. Totally optional. Watch it burn while you eat and drink, and when the flames get low enough, take turns carefully jumping over the fire three times while saying, "Meigas fora!" This means "Witches off!" in Spanish. Enjoy the rest of your healthful, witch-free summer, and please don't come crying to us if you get burnt.
The Oaxacan Guelaguetza
Tacos are great and all, but they happen every Tuesday. Mix it up and take a page from the Oaxacan Guelaguetza celebration that takes place each year in mid-July instead. With an all-out celebration of Oaxacan culture, food plays a prominent role, especially tamales!
If your tamale making has historically involved the freezer aisle of Trader Joe's, it's time to take it up a notch. In Oaxaca, tamales come wrapped in banana leaves—you can usually find them at Asian groceries like Fubonn (2850 SE 82nd). You'll also need masa: Three Sisters Nixtamal (threesisterspdx.com) makes it with organic corn, and sells it all over town.
The combination of turkey filling (use cooked meat shredded off the drumsticks—skin removed—rather than the breast) and mole sauce is classic Oaxacan. Bunches & Bunches (bunches-bunches.com) makes a smoked Oaxacan mole in Portland that's just heat and go. Do so, adding the turkey at the end. Then all you gotta do is beat together the masa with some lard (not as gross as it sounds), spread it onto the banana leaves, spoon on some turkey mole, and fold them up, securing with a bit of cooking string. Steam them for about an hour (replenishing the steam water as necessary—you don't want to scorch your pot!), and boom.
Tecate and tequila are obvious beverage accompaniments, but don't overlook the lesser-known smoky goodness of another Oaxacan tradition: mezcal. The best way to find one you like is to try as many as possible. Seek out the counsel of bartenders at places like Xico (3715 SE Division) or try a tasting dinner thrown by Mezcal Cena (mezcalcena.com), an organization whose mission is "bringing Oaxaca and Portland together."
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