Archive for Wednesday, May 15, 1996

PRETENTIOUS, BUT INFORMAL

May 15, 1996

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— A Baldwin couple's home has become a mecca for fine dining.

To have supped at Debi Lastinger's table is to have been led on a sensual adventure that pushes the frontiers of dining and entertaining Douglas County-style.

Take the seven-course meal she served Saturday night. After cooking for two days, Lastinger presented an herb-rubbed crown roast of lamb as the centerpiece of a citrus-laced spring menu.

From elegant appetizers to a dessert of raspberry-chocolate truffle cake, Lastinger, her husband David Pittman and their nine guests dined for four hours.

The menu included shrimp and scallop quenelles, or little dumplings, served in a tarragon sauce on half-shells and a sorbet-like lemon-champagne granita to cleanse the palate after the fish course.

Although dinner invitations to the Lastinger-Pittman home are coveted privilege, buffet dinners as well as sit-down extravaganzas like this most recent event tend to happen about once a month.

``She's very well known as being the best cook in town,'' said Bob Kahle, a frequent dinner guest. ``She's our Babette,'' he said, referring to the Danish film, ``Babette's Feast.''

Lastinger, who is working on a doctorate in counseling psychology at Kansas University, said she cut back on cooking for company when she went back to school. It used to be that she held a dinner party about once a week.

``That's what I call serious entertaining,'' she said.

Occasions are easy to come by. Lastinger said she and Pittman, who is Baker University's treasurer, often plan dinners around cultural activities at the college across the street from their home. Other times, the dinners are their own event.

Although guests are easily impressed by the scale of a Lastinger culinary production, they aren't likely to overlook the fact that she is an accomplished gourmet cook. Even so, the atmosphere she creates is relaxed.

``I like to prepare dishes that are formal, almost to be point of being pretentious, and serve them in an informal atmosphere,'' Lastinger said.

``Some people get real intimidated by a menu like this,'' she said of Saturday's fare. ``That's why I tell people just to come and dress casually.''

For Lastinger, these culinary events have meaning far beyond the festivity, socializing and fine food. On a personal level, the ritual of cooking and eating has been part of her life since her Southern childhood.

``To me, this is the way I express myself. I really feel like when I cook for people, I'm giving them something of myself,'' she said.

``There's something almost mystical about feeding people. That's a really strong element of Southern culture. When you love people, you feed them.''

Lastinger orchestrates one of her feasts by planning meticulously. After developing a menu around a mood or theme, such as the citrus that reappeared throughout Saturday's meal, Lastinger schedules her time in the kitchen.

Her plan includes what time to prepare the various components of the meal as well as to get dressed and to put ice cubes in glasses. She also makes a list of the serving dishes, silverware and garnishes she'll use during the evening.

For a formal, multi-course dinner, Lastinger lets her guests savor their dining experience. Saturday's meal was designed to be an all-evening affair.

``I give small portions because I don't want you to get full early in the game,'' she said. ``It's very paced also. We eat a little and talk a little bit, eat a little bit and talk a little bit.''

Lastinger's experience in the kitchen gives her the confidence to develop her own dishes.

``Anymore I cook a lot by taste and feel,'' she said. ``It's rare that I use a recipe anymore.''

Frequently, dinner guests are first to sample a new creation. Fear of embarrassment has no place in Lastinger's kitchen.

``You have to be willing to stretch yourself and be willing to fail,'' she said. ``If you're not willing to fail, you're not going to have spectacular successes.''

Kahle, who has never known Lastinger to serve the same dish twice, said her sense of adventure adds to the experience of eating food she's prepared.

``It's usually something I've never had before in my life and probably never will again,'' he said.

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