This week’s get-together needs very little in the way of introductions. It was Super Bowl Sunday. My mom and dad came over from Toledo, Matt and Sara came up from downstairs, and we all gathered around our poor excuse of a TV to watch the big game. By the way, when you have the smallest TV of anyone you know, you had better be promising a damn good spread of food, if you want to host a Super Bowl party. But no problem there. This menu more than made up for our TV’s embarrassingly small surface area.
Can you tell by the menu which team we were rooting for? The Saints, of course! But really, I didn’t care too much who won, either way. I based my loyalty solely on cuisine. I mean, really - Indianapolis versus New Orleans – there’s no contest when it comes to food. To me, Super Bowl XLIV was simply the perfect excuse for a Cajun feast.
But having said that, the first menu item was pretty bipartisan. Non-partisan, actually. This spicy spin on artichoke dip had no tie to either team. An old (well, old-ish) family recipe, it could, I suppose, officially be considered Ohio cuisine, but definitely not Louisiana fare.
Nonetheless, this tasty dip fit seamlessly within my Big Easy menu. Hot from the oven, with a bubbly crust of golden parmesan, oozing insides of melted pepper jack cheese, and pretty red and green speckles of artichokes and peppers, this charismatic dish would feel at home in just about any menu. A far cry from a typical artichoke dip, with a subtle heat that brings it to a whole new level, it’s a family favorite for good reason. Along with my mom, grandma and aunts, I can find an easy excuse to serve it for just about any occasion, from fancy dinner parties to casual get-togethers. In my cache of go-to recipes, it’s a deliciously definite keeper.
But I must admit, tasty as it was, the dip was blown away by the bacon-wrapped shrimp.
Wrapped in a crispy spiral of smoked bacon, and glistening under a sweet shellac of bourbon-brown sugar glaze, these incredible shrimp disappeared in the blink of an eye. A pound of shrimp was a severe underestimation, and hardly came close to satisfying the six of us. Really, I should have known, considering my dad’s champion-worthy shrimp-eating skills. But truly, a bit of a shortage can be a good thing too. It’s always good to leave everyone aching for just a little more ;).
On their own, these shrimp were near perfection. But dunked in the lusciously smooth tomato-bourbon aioli, they were out of this world. Colored a creamy pinkish-orange, with a green confetti swirl of chopped fresh tarragon, this sauce was as pretty as it was tasty. And boasting a boozy undercurrent of bourbon and a tangy kick of sweet tomato, it was a spot-on complement to the bacon-wrapped shrimp. Next time you think of serving boring old shrimp cocktail, think of this instead. I promise, you’ll knock the socks off of anyone who takes a bite.
Next up, the gumbo. Standing in for game day chili, this traditional Louisiana stew was a touchdown all around. Chock full of all sorts of goodness – smoky andouille sausage, pink curls of sweet shrimp, mini green wagon wheels of okra and the holy Cajun trinity of onions, celery and bell pepper – and topped with a scoop of brown rice and good pungent pinch of sliced green onions, it was in my book, exactly what you want, when you want gumbo. As far as gumbos go, this one earns a solid A, and from this day forward, this will be my official gumbo recipe.
But like the artichoke dip, the gumbo was a bit over-shadowed by the other dishes. I have to say, the MVP of the day was the muffuletta sandwich.
Layer upon layer of spectacular ingredients, this sandwich was a sight to behold. And it was so completely delicious, maybe the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. Close to it at any rate.
I think the incredibleness of this sub all starts with the olive salad, a rainbow of vegetables – slices of deep purple kalamatas and drab olive-green olives, neon-green ribbons of spicy peppers, glistening pickled bright orange carrots and pale green celery, slivers of pure white garlic and jade green flecks of fresh herbs. Like a bowl-full of jewels. I hate to dwell on aesthetics, when it’s the taste that ultimately counts, but in my mind, the sheer beauty of this salad will always win out over its admittedly equal deliciousness. Just look.
So it all starts with the olive salad. But every last component of this sandwich was equally important to its ultimate success. The crusty Italian bread. The melty provolone cheese. The deep pink ribbons of salty cured meats. The peppery leaves of baby arugula. And oh, the blistered and caramelized slow-roasted tomato slices. Each delicious layer piled high atop the next, all of it hot and toasty from the oven.
To add a bit of sweetness to our savory spread, I made my old favorite, chocolate brownies, and a new favorite too, caramel nut bars. A recipe of Martha Stewart’s, these are absolutely one-hundred percent incredible. With a flaky cookie base and a thick, gooey topping of salty golden caramel, all studded with toasted pecans, peanuts and cashews, these are the richest, most ridiculously decadent things around. And when it comes to my favorite desserts, they take top honors in the bar category. Maybe even above brownies. Or maybe tied, I don’t know. Maybe there’s no need to qualify their magnificence.
Needless to say, the brownies and caramel nut bars were a perfect capstone in our Super Bowl smorgasbord. And a great touch of sweetness in an altogether super night.