As we approached the weekend, unsure of the weather, we set aside everything we weren’t sure about and focused on bringing what we consider the best of Supper Club to the forefront: community, conversation, and experience. We kind of turned the clubhouse inside out, opening the enclosed patio to guests and moving the kitchen to the south patio.
And then we just crossed our fingers that the wind would blow the right way.
The patio sits above a very swollen Armell’s Creek as it winds its way through the manicured golf course. Its banks are a tangle of last years’ cattails making room for spring’s new grass. The smell of sunshine and rain is carried up the hill on a breeze that would become a gale of snow the next day. Given the unpredictability of spring, we really lucked out on weather.
The screened-in porch was strung with lights and sedum, creating a whimsical feel of being somewhere else. You have to understand this about Colstrip; we have literally grown up in the dining establishments that are here. The décor and the feel of each restaurant, including the clubhouse, are damn near ingrained in us. So part of Underground’s goal is to transport our guests. And it is amazing what a few twinkle lights and linens will do. Tables were layered with swaths of brightly colored fabrics and decorated with hand-painted gourds and Andean dolls that were indicative of the flavors about to be presented.
As guests arrived, they scattered their belongings on the tables, poured themselves a drink, and then could wander back to where we had built a makeshift kitchen buoyed by cinderblocks. An old tool box was used to bake root vegetables and lick-barrels scavenged off of the prairie held the embers for the evening’s theme: Seven Fires. Inspired by Francis Mallman (the Argentinean fox) we wanted to build a menu that showcased not only the flavors of the South American continent, but also the different applications of cooking with fire. In his aptly titled cookbook Seven Fires, Mallman describes the attributes of fires, embers, coals and ash, outlining seven ways to use fire for outdoor cooking. The beauty of this book, and of the menu we created, was that there isn’t a dependence on marinating or heavy handed seasoning to celebrate the food. There is, quite simply: the meat, the vegetable, and the heat. From here we didn’t plate the food. We simply built unplanned platters as the food came off the grill: biased sliced meats, pierced eggplants, smashed root vegetables, and torn peppers. (A big shout out to Lisa and Kevin Brook of MM Beef Company for the London broils.)
But just for fun, and because both Ashley and I are hard-pressed to stop at simple, we added a few elements that took these platters up a level. Each platter was adorned with edible flowers and seed sprouts from Swanky Roots, a hydroponics playground just outside of Billings. When I stopped in to stock up for the event, Ronna kept bringing me different sprouts to try and these really added a layer of snappy, bright freshness to the platters. We strove to source South American cheeses, but this proved nearly impossible, so we relied on Central American queso to crumble over the platters and goat cheese to bring a creaminess to everything, particularly the burnt tomatoes, which was my go-to the next day. (It’s always interesting to see what we pull out to nibble on the next day during clean up.)
On the table, we put out a number of sauces and salsas for the guests to play with. We really wanted people to be able to build their own bites and play with different levels of heat. There was a honey gremolatta, a salsa lucia, a chimichurri, and a Peruvian green sauce that really stopped people mid-bite, having them wave us over, “wait wait, what is this?” (That is my favorite part, watching people’s eyes widen as they question and savor what is happening in their mouth.)
There are a few quintessential South American foods that we had to ensure were a part of the table. After visiting with Clint at Yellowstone Cellars & Winery, he insisted that we include Aji de Gallina (a traditional Chicken Stew) that he had enjoyed on a trip. We made this stew handheld by using it as the filling for empanadas that were baked off in a wood fired oven. Using The Billings Seafood Guys’ product we had on hand, we seared some shrimp lollipops, put them in mason jars and scattered them around like bouquets.
Another dish that kept reappearing in our research: Causa de Langostino. It was one of those dishes that when you read the recipe, it is so “out there” but so prevalent, that you have to try it, and we are glad we did! Potatoes are yellowed with the ever present aji pepper, then used to build a tower of avocado and Chilean Langostine we found at Seafoods of the World. We finished this appetizer with a Baja sauce and tobiko. I’m still perplexed how this worked, but man, it was delicious. A Peruvian guest pointed out that traditionally, the dish showcases yellow potatoes which are native to the region. I think it would be really cool to get our hands on some South American potato varieties and explore the nuances of each potato.
But you know what really makes these events? Ashley and I make eye contact in this frenzy of sauces flying and shit burning and dishes piling up, and we smile at each other and say simultaneously: “The Conversation.” The sound of people, their murmurs, their laughter, their excitement upon seeing each other, the muting that happens as things get serious, the barbs as someone loses at corn hole, the handshakes and the backslaps, the sharing of experiences, remembering trips… there is a song that is created in the sound of people being together that is truly musical, and honestly, I think we could put out zesta crackers and salami and Busch lites and people would still sing this song. We are just so honored to have found ourselves in a position to orchestrate these evenings and cannot wait to witness the next one.