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Serena Bass's Green Acres

The story of a city girl who uses her wits -- and cooking skills, and relatives, and Rolodex -- to find happiness and a rocking good time in a little town two hours north of Manhattan.

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Serena Bass can make any occasion a party. She is, after all, a professional caterer, not to mention the namesake proprietress of Serena's, the swank celebrity lair she and her son Sam Shaffer carved out of the Chelsea Hotel basement. But she takes special pleasure entertaining her own friends and family at her private retreat, a chic house in the Connecticut woods.

Serena's sister Gaynor had planned a trip to visit her daughter, actress Minnie Driver, giving Serena the perfect excuse to throw a party (not that she ever needs one). And so on a recent weekend she gathered a houseful of guests, including hair stylist John Barrett, novelist Roxana Robinson, restaurateur Jonathan Morr, flower and event designer Antony Todd, filmmaker Paul Morrissey, and writer Daisy Garnett.

Then she got busy. Because as everyone knows -- but none quite so well as a professional party planner -- perfect weekends don't just happen. They take work, most of which Serena advises doing well in advance. By the time she leaves town Friday afternoon, she's packed her car with the makings of her weekend menu, including a Friday-night supper that's been completely readied for the oven: a simple one-dish meal like lasagna or shepherd's pie that frees her to make introductions as her guests straggle in.

"She has a knack of putting dynamic people together who invariably get on," says Barrett, a regular at Serena's table. "So it's hard to drag yourself away from her lunches at eight o'clock in the evening."

"I don't want to do restaurant food in the country," says Serena, who prefers to cook home-style food with a few seriously gourmet twists. She slathers garlic bread, for instance, with an herby blend of parsley, basil, and tarragon, and enlivens her borscht with a dash of Aleppo pepper. If you think that nothing can rev up potato salad, you haven't tried juniper berries. Serena has. She's also devised two summer salads that artfully blend the raw and the cooked (roasted Japanese eggplant and fresh tomatoes, sauteed artichokes and arugula).

As good as horseradish mayo is as a garnish for marinated beef sprinkled with fleur de sel, it's even better on sandwiches made with the leftovers. And Serena's inspired, chocolate-crusted take on lemon-meringue pie is a cinch -- provided you don't forget to pack the lemon-custard filling, which, if you follow Serena's directions precisely, you'll have cooked and frozen in advance.

Menu for 8

  • Pimm's or Bloody Marys with fresh horseradish Borscht
  • Marinated beef with horseradish mayo
  • Baby Red Bliss potato salad with juniper and buttermilk
  • Roasted-eggplant-and-fresh-tomato salad
  • Artichoke-and-arugula salad
  • Garlic bread with green butter
  • Serena's chocolate lemon-meringue tart

The Recipes

Borscht

3 pounds medium beets, unpeeled (about 12 medium beets)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, coarsely chopped

1/2 small white cabbage, shredded (about 8 ounces)

4 cloves garlic

12 cups chicken stock

4 whole cloves

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
(1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes can be substituted)

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns

1 Knorr beef bouillon cube

Sea salt

1/2 cup sour cream

1/2 crème fraîche

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1/2 cup chopped fresh dill

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut half of the beets into 1-inch pieces. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan; add the beets, onion, cabbage, and garlic; and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the chicken stock, cloves, bay leaves, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, and stock cube. Cover the saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 and 1/4 hours.

Place the remaining beets in a glass dish. Add 1/4 inch water, and cover with foil. Roast in the oven for about 1 hour, or until the beets are cooked. When they're cool, peel and roughly dice.

Strain the beet-cabbage mixture, discarding the solids. Add the liquid to a blender with the reserved roasted diced beets and sour cream, and purée until smooth. Add the sherry vinegar, and season to taste with salt. Place in refrigerator until well chilled. Serve chilled in individual bowls, each topped with a swirl of crème fraîche and garnished with dill.

Marinated Beef

8 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns, crushed

1/2 cup chopped rosemary

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 pounds beef fillet

1/4 cup kosher salt

Fleur de sel, to scatter over cooked beef

Combine garlic, pepper flakes, black pepper, rosemary, and oil in a Ziploc bag, add the beef, and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Remove the beef from the marinade, rub with salt, and place on a half sheet pan.

Roast for about 30 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 120 degrees for medium rare. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.


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