Summer is festival time in northern Michigan and one of my favorites is the Traverse City Film Festival. The event invites many filmmakers and actors to Traverse City. These guests are each assigned to a driver who helps them get to their screenings and events. The drivers become ambassadors for the festival and the region.

Eleven years ago, I volunteered to be a driver, and I love the role. It was one of those times when I said yes to helping, having no idea how much it would enrich my life. It even produced one of the most unforgettable meals I’ve ever had — one that offers a lesson in impromptu invitations and seeking help from family and friends.

The first filmmaker I drove was a director who lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He was an award-winning cinematographer and brought a film he produced and directed set in his home country of Uruguay. I eagerly prepared for my assignment and, imagining the world class traveler he must be, included a list of Traverse City restaurants I thought he would enjoy. As I described our amenities and restaurants on the drive from the airport to the hotel, he asked if his room had a microwave, and if there was a convenience store nearby. So much for my suggestions.

As it turned out, he was a night owl who liked having junk food for his midnight snack. I learned he also appreciated food in the way I do, and during the week he was here, we shared some very good meals at our restaurants, as well as delicious local food at a beach party.

One of the most memorable film festival food stories, however, was a supper we hosted a few years ago. I was assigned to drive two documentary filmmakers that year: one from New York City screening his first film and the other a seasoned, Academy Award-winning director from Los Angeles with many films under his belt. The novice wanted to meet the veteran and I decided to invite them to our home for dinner under the pergola. I made this offer to them on Sunday morning, knowing that we had already postponed our weekly Sunday supper because of my busy driving schedule. I called my husband, Eric, and asked, “Can we really do this?” I had very little time to prepare for a dinner that day because of everyone’s schedules. He said, “I’m on it. What can I do to help?”

We put together a menu: whole poached lake trout, cucumber sauce, zucchini salad, sliced tomatoes, potatoes with parsley and butter. Leelanau Cheese fromage blanc and radishes for appetizers. Zabaglione and berries for dessert. Eric stepped into copilot position, calling our neighbor who has a restaurant to procure the fish (three whole lake trout, please.) Our neighbor’s wife went into action as well, setting up a beautiful private area for the filmmakers under a catalpa tree in the other neighbor’s yard so they could chat in private before dinner. She placed vases of flowers everywhere.

I raced home in between driving stints to prep the food. A seed had also been planted by the novice asking us if we could invite another famous documentary filmmaker to the table. I made the call. When it became known that he might be making an appearance at the table, requests for an invitation from neighbors and friends grew and grew. There were 15 guests in all that night.

When the time came, the two filmmakers went to sit under the catalpa tree to talk while we finished making the food, and the table filled with expectant guests. When the filmmakers came back to the pergola, we began our meal, as we always do, holding hands around the table and welcoming our guests. I have a vivid memory of the long table filled with people young and old, from near and far, sitting in the perfection of a summer’s night, passing serving plates filled with food, sharing stories and much laughter. The veteran filmmaker was gracious and asked as many questions of us as we did of him and his work. Just as the meal ended, the famous guest did arrive, and the novice was pleased he got to meet him. The evening ended shortly afterwards with everyone scrambling to their movie screenings.

Other filmmakers have graced our table over the years but the spontaneity of that gathering, the many helping hands pulling off the impossible and all the different people coming together that evening has made it the most memorable Sunday supper to date.

You too can pull off an impromptu meal. Just rely on recipes that work with your own level of comfort in the kitchen and take advantage of the season’s bounty. Don’t be afraid to ask your guests, friends or neighbors for help. This simple formula will reward you with fond memories and special friendships.

I wonder who I will be driving this year?

WHOLE LAKE TROUT OR SALMON POACHED IN FOIL

Ed and Cindy John sell their fresh caught fish at the Traverse City Farmers Markets on Saturdays — always beautiful. While it may seem intimidating to cook a whole fish, it is quite simple and is a great option for a crowd. This recipe serves 10-12, depending on serving size.

6-7 lb. whole lake trout or salmon, gutted and cleaned

1 c. dry white wine

1 whole lemon, thinly sliced

2 shallots, sliced thinly

Fresh herbs, 12 or more sprigs of any of the following — basil, tarragon, parsley, dill, thyme, lemon balm, oregano, lovage — in combination, or just your favorite for fish. Reserve some sprigs for garnish.

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven or gas grill to 375 degrees. Rinse the fish, and pat dry with paper towels.

Place a large piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, enough to wrap the fish completely, on a baking sheet and place the fish on top of the foil.

Season the fish inside and out with some salt and pepper. Place shallots and some of the lemon slices in the cavity of the fish, reserving some lemon for garnish. Add springs of herbs to the fish cavity. Pull the foil up around the fish and pour in the wine. Seal the foil tightly around the fish to prevent wine from escaping. Place baking sheet with fish in oven; if cooking on gas grill, wrap in another layer of foil and carefully place foil wrapped fish on grill, closing the lid. Cook about 45-70 minutes, checking the fish at 45 minutes by opening the foil and, using a sharp knife, pulling open the fish at the fattest part to check for doneness. It should be pink-colored but not raw. When done, remove from oven and open foil to stop it from cooking.

When ready to serve, place fish on a large platter if presenting whole, or have a platter ready to place individual portions on it. Carefully remove the skin from the top of the fish with a sharp knife. Using a knife or pie server with a serrated edge, slice fish down to the backbone into serving size pieces. Scatter the fresh herbs and lemon slices decoratively on the platter before serving. When you have finished serving the fillet over the backbone, grab the tail and use it to lift the backbone carefully towards the head of the fish to remove it. You can also remove the head before serving if your guests object to staring at a fish head on the serving platter.

Serve with cucumber sauce and lemon wedges. This poached fish is also excellent served cold, so it can be prepared ahead and ready to go when you want to serve it.

Source: Rose Hollander

CUCUMBER SAUCE

A classic and great with cold poached fish. Makes 1 ½ cups

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced into small cubes, about 1 c.

½ t. salt

1 c. sour cream (or substitute plain Greek yogurt)

1 T. fresh dill, chopped (or 2 t. tarragon or parsley)

Optional: 2-3 scallions, white and light green parts, sliced thin

1 t. fresh lemon juice or white wine vinegar

Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

Place diced cucumber in a colander over a bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let sit for at least a half hour. If it’s a warm day, let it sit in the refrigerator for this step. This step will release excess water in the cucumber to prevent a watery sauce, although seeding the cucumber also helps so if you don’t have time to let it sit, no worries.

Place cucumber in a bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients, taste and add more salt, pepper or lemon juice to taste. Keep chilled until ready to serve.

Variation: Whip one cup heavy cream and use this instead of sour cream or yogurt. Fold in remaining ingredients.

Source: Rose Hollander

ZUCCHINI SALAD

I hesitated to include this recipe because it is so simple — but that’s also a good reason to include it. Serves 4.

2 medium zucchini or 1 zucchini and 1 summer squash for contrasting colors

Juice of half a lemon, or more to taste

Salt and pepper

2 T. chopped fresh mint leaves

Wash zucchini and squash. Shave them with a vegetable peeler into long ribbons, and place in a bowl (you may not be able to shave inner pieces; just compost these bits.) Sprinkle with lemon juice and a little salt and pepper.

Set aside 15 minutes and taste, adding more salt if needed. Toss in the mint. Serve within an hour or it will get too soft.

Be sure to taste just before serving to see if it needs a little more lemon juice to brighten the flavor.

Source: Rose Hollander

ZABAGLIONE

When I lived in San Francisco, my date and I would often go to a little Italian restaurant on Friday nights, where they served this sauce for dessert. Our waiter, Amelio, called it “honeymoon juice.” This recipe serves 6.

8 egg yolks

3/4 c. sugar

1/3 c. Marsala

Place ingredients in the top part of a double boiler, stir together and set aside. Bring the water in the bottom of the double boiler to a boil. Place the top pan over the boiling water, reduce the heat slightly and vigorously whisk the mixture constantly until it thickens and about doubles in bulk. This may take 5 minutes or more. If you don’t have a double boiler, use a heat-proof bowl over a pot instead.

Remove from heat and whisk for another minute.

The sauce may be served warm on its own, or over fresh berries. It can be chilled and will lose its volume to become more like a sauce. Over time, it will separate so best to use soon after making.

Any brand of Marsala will do in this dish. You can experiment with other fortified sweet wines you may have on hand for this recipe.

Source: Adapted from “The Silver Palate Cookbook”

Rose Hollander has been a caterer, Idyll Farms chef and cooking instructor who helped initiate the kitchen classroom at the Children’s House. She completed her chef certification at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.

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