You know what banquets are like. Vulcanized chicken. Mushy green beans. Indifferent potatoes. If you’re lucky, and you’ve paid a lot, maybe a halfhearted surf and turf, though it is not always easy to tell which is which.
But that is only a banquet when it is not cooked by a world-class chef. Celebrity chef and Toledo native Susan Feniger was back in town on Saturday, cooking a banquet to raise funds for the Toledo Area Humane Society. More than 200 animal-and-food lovers attended and were treated to a feast, with not an overcooked spear of asparagus or piece of dry cheesecake to be found.
Ms. Feniger grew up in Old Orchard and Ottawa Hills before going on to become a chef. She is now known for appearing with business partner Mary Sue Milliken on nearly 400 television episodes on the Food Network, her guest appearances on many other shows, her six cookbooks, and her restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The Border Grill restaurants (and a popular taco truck), which are found in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, feature Mexican food. Street, in Los Angeles, specializes in foods sold and often cooked on the streets in other countries.
A combination of the two, Mexican and street foods, were served at the Humane Society benefit.
“I was just doing food from all around the world,” she said after the event, which was held at the Sylvania Township home of Susan and Allan Block. Allan Block is chairman of Block Communications, Inc., parent company of The Blade.
Of course, food from around the world is not necessarily readily available in northwest Ohio. But the staff at The Premier catering, who helped prepare the meal, did am admirable job of tracking down some of the more obscure ingredients, she said, such as kaffir lime leaves and pomegranate syrup.
The dinner, held under a massive tent, began with a reception with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. The hors d’oeuvres were special: skewers of lamb meatballs topped with dates and served with date molasses (or perhaps the pomegranate syrup); Korean rice salad served on lettuce; Tunisian chicken and Tunisian relish; and a Peruvian ceviche made with halibut and aji amarillo, a South American pepper.
But they only whetted the appetite for more, much more, to come. The salad wasn’t just a salad, it was a Burmese gin thoke melon salad (gin thoke is a ginger salad), made with watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, green lentils, peanuts, coconuts, and toasted sesame seeds.
The entree wasn’t just short ribs, it was Korean-glaze short ribs with sesame topped with Asian pear and celery salad. The ribs were meltingly tender and slightly sweet, because the glaze contained honey and more pureed Asian pears. And it wasn’t served just with corn, it was served with grilled corn esquite, which blends grilled corn with mayonnaise, lime juice, cayenne pepper, and Cotija cheese, a salty, flavorful, and firm cheese from Mexico.
Actually, the extra-spicy esquite was the one part of the meal that some diners found problematic. A few guests, grabbing for their water, expressed a wish that it had had a little less cayenne.
The green vegetable was thinly sliced Brussels sprouts mixed with goat cheese and apples, a refreshing dish. And dessert was just as unexpected: capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding with apples, cinnamon, brown sugar, and cream cheese.
Ordinarily, you’d have to go to the West Coast or Vegas to find such food at the Border Grill restaurants or Street, or you could make several of the recipes yourself from Susan Feniger’s Street Food cookbook. But the chef brought it back to Toledo for the Humane Society fund-raiser because of her love of animals (a lifelong owner of dogs, she now has two golden retriever and standard poodle mixes, Augie and Chewie — short for Chewbacca — and two cats, Rowdy and Squirt).
Returning to Toledo also gave her a chance to catch up once again with family and old friends. And those friends and acquaintances she did not get a chance to see apparently all came to say hello at the event.
“I saw a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in 40 years,” she said.
Contact Daniel Neman at email@example.com or 419-724-6155.