Invitation to Summer

A February cookout with horseshoes and toasted marshmallows makes warm memories.

February 27, 2002|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

This has been a winter more like a spring and, sometimes more like a summer.

Perhaps the February thaw came early and stayed. Or fall never ended or spring is officially eternal.

Whatever the cause of February's intemperately temperate temperatures, it furnished the perfect night for a cookout, complete with a moonlit game of horseshoes and marshmallows roasted over a campfire.

Edgewater hostess Linda Krone and her husband, Billy, have a good-time reputation sealed long ago, when cookouts meant marinated chicken breasts for the grown-ups and hot dogs for the kids.

Those kids now have cars and dates and a social life far removed from backyard barbecues shared with their parents.

Linda Krone is all grown up, too, as an accomplished cook and an inspired party planner.

So when the invitations arrived declaring: "The Krones Are Grilling!" guests looked at the calendar not to check the season, but to make sure the date was open.

"This was all about making time for friends," she said, when the curious called to RSVP. The lesson of Sept. 11, she said, was that postponing such gatherings was to risk their never occurring.

But why a cookout? Linda explained that a cook more accomplished than she was among the guests. She said the only way to avoid any comparison was to prepare dinner in the way she is most confident: "When in doubt, I grill out," she said.

So, the Krones' midwinter cookout for 12 was set for a recent Saturday night. No snow date was mentioned.

The weather continued its cooperative bent and the evening bloomed crisp, clear and starlit, with a waning moon and temperatures dropping slowly from a daytime high of 50 degrees. It was probably closer to 30 degrees by the time the horseshoe contest got started under the lights. No one complained about the cold, but, rest assured, the tournament was not a marathon.

Krone set her table indoors (no reason to test the limits of her guests' cheerfulness), with a loose-weave cotton tablecloth and napkins in a bright summer plaid of blue, green, yellow and white. The bottoms had been cracked out of tiny clay flowerpots to serve as napkin rings.

Primroses still in their nursery pots dotted the table, along with calligraphy menus Linda generated on her home computer and decorated with strips of ribbon and tiny satin rosettes.

Around the room were miniature daffodils and tulips. The dining room was gently lighted in tones of a summer's eve with the help of flower candles floating in water cylinders. Linda had set the mood so well we could almost hear the crickets chirping.

"I love theme parties," said guest Pat Prouty, who once threw a party based on a flamingo theme. "You can build everything around them. And it's just like Linda to do something outside in February."

None of the guests felt any hardship, especially after the wine began to flow. "It's not like it's snowing or sleeting out there," said Allison Hyland.

The menu was, simply stated, surf and turf - the grown-up version of chicken breasts and hot dogs.

For the appetizer, Krone purchased rib-eye steak sliced paper-thin from her favorite grocery, Lotte in Manna Oriental Food Plaza in Ellicott City. After marinating the meat in olive oil and garlic, she folded each slice into a little bundle tied together with a blanched scallion.

Husband Billy, working by the light of a broken floor lamp, grilled the meat packets four minutes a side in a grilling basket on the deck while Linda plated dollops of horseradish mixed with heavy whipping cream and green tomato slices coated with cornmeal and fried.

"The green tomatoes were not easy," Linda said. "I had to call a friend who called a restaurant produce supplier."

On the advice of Erick Larson of Corridor Wine & Spirits in Laurel, she had both a cabernet sauvignon (River Road) and two merlots (Alterra and Bridgman) to pour with the beef.

It was back to the Oriental grocery for the elements of her salad: enoki mushrooms and radish sprout bouquet, which she coiled in spaghetti al dente dyed red, on arugula and mixed greens. The dressing was light to preserve the different flavors in the greens: a splash of olive oil, coarse ground pepper, balsamic vinegar and sea salt.

But the centerpiece of the menu was grilled African rock lobster tails. Billy Krone cut away the underbelly with poultry shears, brushed the meat with lemon butter, skewered the tails to keep them from curling and wrapped each of them in a foil bundle for 10 minutes of grilling.

Krone then removed the tails, unwrapped them and put them naked on the grill for another four or five minutes over mesquite chips.

"The secret," said Linda, "to the smoky taste is the mesquite chips. Billy seems to know how to do that just right."

During the dinner preparation, the guests chatted and passed in and out of the sliding glass door to the deck, which was lighted by strings of punched-tin lights strung along the railing. You could almost hear someone's parsimonious mother say, "What do you think, it's the middle of summer?"

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