The art gallery openings have closed. The cocktail parties are over. For the most part, the endless summer parade of lectures, dances, concerts, and other activities fades away for another year. When things start to die down and shut down, where do Islanders typically turn for entertainment? The dinner party.
We asked veteran host Ali Berlow of Vineyard Haven to set the stage for the magazine to photograph a dinner party from beginning to end, and tell us how she typically pulls hers together. The thought of this might alarm some, but not Berlow. “All I have to do is have a dinner party?” she asked.
Hosting friends and family comes easily to Berlow, mother of two boys and host of A Cook’s Notebook, a show on the two Cape and Islands NPR stations. Her reasons to have a dinner party vary widely, but arise often. “It’s Friday, something great went on sale, and I want to cook with it. Or somebody brings me a striped bass; of course you’re going to have a party.” Last fall, she ordered a turducken, a chicken inside of a duck inside of a turkey, all deboned and layered with stuffing. “It’s one of those things you have to have a party for. It was so much fun.”
Dinners are often decided that day, and that’s fine with husband Sam. There’s a host of usual suspects to invite: in-laws; neighbors; friends of their sons Max, eleven, and Eli, nine. For this party, she invited Sam’s brother David and mother Marjorie, and a core group of twelve good friends with seven kids who eat together at least every other week in the off-season. “Then it’s always great to bring in new people,” Berlow said.
The menu centered around a slow-cooked brisket braised in coffee, a perfect fall dish from John Ash’s new book, Cooking One on One. Berlow loves this cookbook and recently reviewed it on the radio. Mollee Lewis, a friend and a good cook, brought a scalloped-potato dish layered with a béchamel sauce and Gruyère cheese. Since Ali doesn’t like to make salads, I made a mixed green salad with roasted pears and blue cheese with a pear vinaigrette, and a spicy broccoli-rabe side dish with garlic, raisins, and pecans. Dessert – well, that came later.
And that’s how many of her parties come together, Berlow said. She typically provides the core dish and dessert. “I’m always trying out stuff on people. It’s great to try out on your friends; they’ll tell you the truth.” Everyone pitches in with the food, or cleanup, or looking after the kids.
Berlow considers herself a home cook and didn’t even start cooking until her son Max was born. She lived in Newton, near a chef, Maggie Nesgos, who was also homebound with a new baby, but to whom cooking was a fearless and a creative adventure. Even today when Ali needs inspiration, she thinks, “What would Maggie do?” Two years ago, she turned her love of food and writing into A Cook’s Notebook. The five-minute segment airs three times a week on WCAI and WNAN, with topics from mushroom hunting with a Vineyard Haven neighbor to fictional pieces with a food element. “I can write about tablecloths, I can write about soufflés – anything to do with food.”
Berlow  says she doesn’t typically set a formal table, but it looked beautiful for the party, which had provided a good excuse to buy a new set of dishes – glass plates in shades of lime, aubergine, and papaya. She found them at Hello, a retro-modern gift store in Vineyard Haven owned by friend Stacey Korn, who also attended the party with husband Scott.
Off-season dinner parties at the Berlows are casual, often with dogs and kids running around. This night wasn’t much different. Two kids played “Louie, Louie” on electric guitars, with Paul Lazes as backup on piano. Photographer Nina Bramhall snapped a shot of the salad, arranged for the photo. It looked good, and someone asked if it was available to eat. “This food is fake, it’s all 
plastic,” Ali teased her guest. Guests who could fit at the table happily began 
dinner, starting with a hot ginger-carrot soup, followed by the salad with roasted pears. The scene reminded Berlow of one dinner party in which their old black Lab crawled under the table and began quietly to vomit. Guests just picked up their plates and moved to the kitchen. “I was horrified, but they didn’t seem to mind,” she said.
“It’s not a very controlled situation,” she said of dinner parties in general. “People often overextend themselves. Our expectations become too high because we see these beautiful magazines. None of us are Martha Stewart. None of the food looks like that. There’s nothing wrong with grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, if you’re 
having a good time. Otherwise, you 
forget why we’re getting together.”
And on the Vineyard, having dinner with friends is especially important 
during the long winter months. “There aren’t the distractions like there are off-Island,” said Kathy Forsythe. “We get 
together much more often than we did living off-Island. Our whole group, we love to eat and we all love to eat good food,” she said. “Everyone’s really good friends and Ali has always been the center core of the whole group. She loves 
doing it and it’s obvious. It’s casual and informal. People just show up and it’s never a problem. You know you’re always going to have good food.”
Forsythe’s husband, David Gampfer, remodeled Sam and Ali’s house, which includes a good-sized kitchen, a six-burner stove, and a nice long soapstone island with plenty of room for prepping. A pantry and bar lie between the kitchen and dining room. “It was made for all these big parties. Everyone just hangs out. They’ve always dreamed of this.”
“She’s never sweating and no matter what time you arrive, she says you’re right on time,” said Julia Kidd about Ali. “She’s an incredible hostess, really relaxed and free-flowing. She’s very experimental and always trying something out.”
“People laugh sometimes that I start cooking during the parties; part of that is the pleasure,” Berlow said. “I’ve had my bombs; people are polite about it. I’m just a home cook.”
Dessert was a banana cake with a cream cheese icing dripped down the sides. The cake was delicious, and 
“really easy to make,” Berlow told the group. “That’s what Ali says about everything – it’s really easy,” laughed 
Julia. “It only has 104 ingredients, one of which you have to grow in the 
Berlow says the time after dinner is her favorite part. “The drama’s over, the food has been served. I love getting 
people together and standing back and watching. I like to set the stage with good food, people, and then let it go, not 
orchestrate everything. There’s no greater pleasure than feeding people and having them enjoy it. It’s a big part our social life.”

A Cook’s Notebook airs weekly on WCAI (90.1) and WNAN (91.1), the Cape and Islands National Public Radio stations.

Brisket braised in coffee

Old coffee has some of the same qualities as dry wine, so can enhance a dish in the same way. You don’t need to use old coffee for this recipe, but it should be good and strong.

• 4 pounds beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
• Salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 4 tablespoons olive oil
• 3 large yellow onions, sliced
• 1/4 cup fresh garlic, sliced
• 2 tablespoons (or more) pure chile powder, such as ancho or Chimayo
• 2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
• 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
• 2/3 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
• 2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
• 4 cups strong brewed coffee
• 1 cup homemade chicken, meat, or vegetable stock or your favorite canned broth
• 1 14-1/2-ounce can diced tomatoes with their juices

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper. 
In a deep Dutch oven or casserole, heat 
2 tablespoons olive oil and brown the brisket on both sides over high heat. 
Remove the meat from the pot, discard the fat, and wipe out the pot.

2. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pot and sauté the onions and garlic over high heat until they just begin to color. Add the chile powder and sauté, stirring for a minute more, until fragrant. Add the fennel, cumin, sugar, vinegar, 
coffee, stock, and tomatoes, and bring to 
a simmer. Return the brisket to the pot (fat side up, if you want to be very correct), cover, and place in the oven for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

3. Leaving the oven on, transfer just the 
meat from the pot to a cutting board. Purée the braising liquids and vegetables until smooth (an immersion blender is the easiest way, or you can transfer everything carefully to a food processor or blender, in batches if necessary). Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper if you think it needs it. Return the puréed sauce to the pot, place the meat fat-side up in the pot, and bake uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes more, or until the brisket is nicely glazed. Transfer the meat to a cutting board – 
the last time, I promise – and slice thinly across the grain. Serve the meat with the warm sauce spooned over it, or refrigerate the sliced brisket in the sauce for up to 
3 days, and reheat on the stovetop.

Recipe from Cooking One on One, by 
John Ash.

Salad greens with roasted pears and pear vinaigrette

Serves 4 to 6

• 3 pears, roasted
• 1 head red leaf or Bibb lettuce
• 1 bunch arugula, washed well
• 1 red onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
• Goat or blue cheese

Pear vinaigrette

• 1/2 pear, roasted
• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 1/4 cup apple juice
• 2 tablespoons vinegar: red wine, sherry, or apple cider
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• Salt and pepper to taste

To roast pears: preheat oven to 375. 
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel the pears, slice in half lengthwise, 
scoop out the seeds in the center 
with a spoon, and remove fibrous stem line. Rub each pear with a little olive oil. Place pears on baking sheet cut-side down and bake for approximately 30 minutes. The bottom should be lightly browned 
and the pear easily pierced with a fork.

For the vinaigrette: using a blender, 
add roasted pear, olive oil, apple juice, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Purée. Add a little more oil or apple 
juice to thin, if necessary.

Recipe by Catherine Walthers.

Scalloped potatoes

• 5 lbs. red potatoes
• 1 large Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
• 1–2 cloves garlic, minced
• 5–6 pieces crispy bacon, crumbled
• 12 ounces cheese: cheddar, 
    Monterey jack, or Gruyère

Cream sauce

• 6 tablespoons butter
• 4 tablespoons flour
• 4 cups milk
• Salt and pepper to taste

Prepare potatoes: slice potatoes 
thinly, keeping skins on, then set aside. Sauté onion with garlic in a little olive 
oil. Combine potatoes, onion, garlic, 
and bacon in large bowl.

Make cream sauce: melt butter in a 
small sauté pan, add flour, and whisk 
together. In a larger sauce pan, bring
milk just to a boil. Remove from heat, 
add butter and flour mixture, and 
whisk until thickened.

Put it all together: butter a lasagna pan, 
9 by 13 by 2 inches. Spoon a layer of potato mixture and sprinkle a handful 
of shredded cheese on top. Repeat this 
until there are no more potatoes (making sure to save a handful of cheese). Pour cream mixture on top and sprinkle 
remaining cheese on the very top.

Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until bubbly and brown. I sometimes place them under the broiler for a minute to crisp the top.

Recipe by Mollee Lewis.

Broccoli rabe with toasted pecans and currants

Broccoli rabe is a very assertive green 
with a slightly bitter flavor. In this recipe, the bitterness is deliciously offset by the sweetness of both the pecans and the 
currants or raisins.

• 1/3 cup pecans, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
• 1 pound broccoli rabe (1 bunch)
• 2 cups water
• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 1/2 cup currants or raisins
• Salt to taste

To toast pecans, place them on a pie tin or cookie sheet, and bake at 325 degrees for 5 minutes, or until lightly toasted. Set aside.

Chop off about 1 inch of the base of the stalks of the broccoli rabe and discard. Slice the stalks into 1-inch pieces and coarsely chop leaves and florets. Wash well. Place 2 cups water in a 10- to 12-inch skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil and add the cleaned and cut rabe. Cover and cook over high heat, stirring 
occasionally until tender, about 2 to 3 
minutes. Remove to a colander to drain.

Rinse the skillet and dry it. Heat the 
olive oil over medium-low heat, lifting 
and tilting the pan to coat. Add garlic 
and currants or raisins and sauté for 30 
to 60 seconds. Stir constantly to prevent garlic from burning. Currants should be glossy and slightly puffed.

Add precooked rabe and stir to combine. Season with salt and cover for a minute until greens are heated through. Serve 
hot, garnished with toasted pecans.

Recipe from Greens, Glorious Greens, 
by Catherine Walthers and Johnna Albi.

Banana cake

10 to 12 portions

• 1/2 pound (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 eggs
• 1 cup ripe bananas, mashed
• 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 2/3 teaspoon baking soda
• 5 tablespoons buttermilk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Cream cheese frosting (see below)
• 1 1/2 to 2 medium-size firm but ripe bananas, sliced
• 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch layer cake pans.

Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add mashed bananas, mixing thoroughly.

Sift dry ingredients and add to butter 
and egg mixture. Stir until flour has been incorporated completely. Add buttermilk and vanilla. Mix for 1 minute.

Pour batter into prepared pans. Set on 
the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester 
inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool in pans on a rack for 10 minutes. 
Unmold and cool on rack for 2 hours.

When cooled, place one layer on a serving plate and frost with cream-cheese frosting. Arrange slices of banana over frosting; cover with second layer and frost top and sides of cake.

Cover sides of cake with chopped nuts, holding nuts in palm and pressing firmly to sides of cake. Dust top of cake with confectioners’ sugar.

Cream cheese frosting

• 8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
• 6 tablespoons sweet butter, at room temperature
• 3 cups confectioners’ sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)

Cream together cream cheese and 
butter in a mixing bowl. Slowly sift in 
confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until fully incorporated. Mixture should 
be free of lumps. Stir in vanilla, and lemon juice if you use it. Makes enough for a 2-layer cake.

Recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook, 
by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins.