photographed by Jessica Attie
As children we tend to dream of the place we’ll live as adults, and that our best friends will be right next door. Turns out that street really does exist — we found it in a quiet corner of Travis Heights, a historic neighborhood in South Austin. None of the four couples who live there knew each other growing up, but they quickly bonded at an annual block party. With careers as diverse as their eclectic neighborhood, this crew includes a documentary filmmaker, math teacher, photographer, and radiologist. The eight friends invited us to join them on a sunny afternoon for what they call a “progressive dinner party.” Each couple opened their home to the group and offered one dish. With four amazing courses and a evening that ended with a karaoke throw-down, this group may very well inspire you to knock on your neighbor’s door and share a drink or two.
David and Michelle Modigliani
David and Michelle (along with their beloved 11 year old dog, Roger) opened their door as the first stop on our progressive dinner tour. David is a documentary filmmaker (you may have already seen his 2008 film, Crawford.) His current project, 61 Bullets, premieres this weekend at the Austin Film Festival. Michelle is an Air B&B hotelier with two Austin properties currently under renovation.
David put on a record while the neighbors gathered in the living room.
The first course:
Pear con Jamón y Arugula Stacks
“We wanted our course to have a Spanish influence, much like most of my cooking,” said Michelle. “One of our favorite Spanish hors d’oeuvres is jamón serrano con melon (serrano ham and melon), so I decided to do an autumnal take on it and substitute the melon for pear.”
- 2 cups of baby arugula
- 2 ripe bosc pears
- 8 slices of serrano ham, cut in half
- 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon Extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground black and white pepper
- 16 toothpicks
Place arugula in bowl, drizzle with olive oil. Add salt to taste and toss. Quarter the pears lengthwise, remove cores, then cut the pear quarters in half. Immediately after cutting pears, dress the pear slices with the juice of 1/2 lemon, sprinkle with thyme leaves and add pepper to taste. Gently fold a half slice of serrano ham so it stacks on it self, then place a slice of pear a top of ham stack to make 16 pieces. Use toothpick to secure pear and ham stack. Serve stacks atop of arugula. Enjoy.
The neighbors stood around the island in David and Michelle’s kitchen to enjoy other Spanish-themed snacks: arbequina olives, manchego cheese and a raw goat cheese with a fig spread.
“We always like to start off with bubbles,” said Michelle as she popped open bottles of Cava Blanco and Cava Rosado.
Drinks in hand, the eight friends (and a few of their dogs) headed down the street to find their second course.
Leah Mesches and Rob Messner
Rob and Leah’s home was the next stop on our neighborhood outing. Together with Lucy, their German Shepherd/Collie mix, they invited guests to dine al fresco in their lovely backyard. Leah is the Girls Camp Director at Camp Champions in Marble Falls and Rob is a calculus teacher at a local Austin high school. He also works with Leah at Camp Champions every summer.
“Our drink station had a bourbon and grapefruit theme,” said Leah. “We served lemon water in mason jars for hydration and then made two specialty drinks. We did our own twist on an old fashioned using grapefruit peel. We also made a cocktail with Makers Mark, fresh/homemade grapefruit juice, agave nectar and topo chico,”
“My advice for a great drink station is: Keep it simple, remember to have HUGE ice cubes and be sure to have a variety available to accommodate different drink requests!” added Rob.
Rob and fellow neighbor Jason Wilbur brought the next course out to the group.
The second course:
Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with Melted Blue Cheese (served with grilled cheese sandwiches)
- 4 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (3 1/2 to 4 cups)
- 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
- 2 celery ribs, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- rosemary — a pinch
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 3/4 pound boiling potatoes
- 2 medium Granny Smith apples
- 4 1/4 cups (or more) vegetable broth
1 cup water
- ½ pound blue cheese
Guests tasted three different types of grilled cheese sandwiches, thinly sliced:
- Caramelized onion and gruyere on sourdough
- Camembert and Tomato on white bread
- Cheddar on buttered white bread
The neighbors wanted to linger in Rob and Leah’s idyllic backyard… and we couldn’t blame them!
Lisette and Celine shared a laugh on the way to the next home.
Lisette Montoto and Jason Wilbur
Lisette is the associate vice president of curriculum and development at International Studies Abroad. Her husband, Jason Wilbur, is a UX designer and photographer who’s looking forward to the launch of his newest venture, Moontower Mobile, an industrial design shop centered around event and accommodation solutions. Here they posed with George, a rescue dog, who they frequently dog-sit for a friend. “We joke that we have joint-custody,” said Jason.
“We love this cookbook by Hugh Acheson,” said Lisette. “It’s one of our favorites. He’s really got a great story. He moved from Ottowa to Georgia and embraced Southern food.”
Lisette and Jason prepared their beautifully hip mid-century dining room for the third course.
David and Rob hung out in the living room while Jason and Lisette finished up in the kitchen.
The aroma of ribs on the stove made house number three a winner upon entry.
The third course:
Braised Short Ribs with Hominy Stew (taken from A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented For Your Kitchen by Hugh Acheson)
- 4 portions short ribs
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium sweet onion, peeled and coarsely cut into large dice
- 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
- 1 celery stalk, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 dried ancho chile
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 3 cups beef stock or store-bought beef broth
- 2 cups canned hominy
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 leek, cleaned and cut into 1 1/2-inch dice
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tbsp canned roasted green chiles
- 1 pound fresh tomato, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground cumin seeds
- 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
- On a large plate, lay out the short ribs and evenly rub with salt and pepper.
- Heat a cast-iron Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
- Add the olive oil and sear all sides of the short ribs for 2 minutes per side.
- Add the onion, carrot and celery. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the chile, bay leaves, thyme and red wine. Cook to reduce the wine by about half.
- Add the beef stock and bring to a light simmer. Cover and place in the preheated oven. Allow to cook for 3 to 3.5 hours, or until the meat is starting to pull away from the bone.
- Remove the short ribs from the Dutch oven. Place them on a large plate and set aside.
- Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the braising liquid into a 2-cup or larger measuring cup and discard the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaves and thyme. Skim all the fat off of the surface. If there’s less than 2 cups of the braising liquid, add enough water to bring it up to 2 cups.
- Drain and rinse the hominy. Set aside.
- Lightly heat a 2-quart or larger soup pot.
- Add the butter, leek and garlic. Sweat the vegetables while occasionally stirring for 4 minutes.
- Add the roasted green chiles, the tomato, cumin, thyme and the 2 cups of braising liquid. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Season to salt with taste.
- Add the hominy and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Add the short ribs to reheat, spooning the hominy stew over them as they simmer for 5 more minutes.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the parsley.
- Ladle the stew into 4 bowls, nestling the short ribs on top.
The party kept moving as the sun sank low, and the neighbors made their way to the final house…
Justin and Celine Ord
Celine and Justin stopped to dote on their adorable dog, Archie, before inviting guests inside for dessert. Both Justin and Celine are physicians, and she authors Aquahaus, a design-focused blog chronicling the renovation of their mid-century home in Travis Heights.
The fourth course:
Olive Oil Cake Topped with Candied Oranges
“While it’s typically rare to spend time with patients outside the hospital, I was very close to a particular patient,” said Celine. “She invited my husband and me to her home for a special dinner party. She’s an excellent cook, and every course was better than the last, peaking at dessert. She had spent time in Morocco as a child, and for dessert, re-created one of her favorites — an olive oil cake topped with candied oranges. Memories of that cake and that special dinner with her have stuck with me for years.”
Look for Celine’s cake recipe in our November newsletter (and sign up below if you are not on our list!)
Celine served the cake paired with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with olive oil and salt.
Guests enjoyed dessert around Justin and Celine’s colorful tabletop.
After four courses, four houses (and specialty drinks at every stop) our eight friends were more than ready for the final dish: karaoke!
Rob did his best “Hey Ya” by Outkast. And… we’re not gonna lie, he’s actually pretty good. Especially with Justin on backup vocals.
It’s hard to believe that “Total Eclipse of the Heart” wasn’t written specifically for karaoke purposes, and this group took it to the next level. Thank you all so much for inviting us to your street for a fun-filled afternoon in Travis Heights!
In the meantime, we may be calling about that “for sale” sign at the end of the block…
Special thanks to photographer Jessica Attie for capturing this lovely afternoon.