By Joan Wilder
If anyone could get the very private young Celtics star Rajon Rondo to cook for all the world to see, it would be Shannon Allen, the wife of Rondo’s teammate Ray Allen.
And Shannon does that – on tape – in an upcoming episode of her new Comcast SportsNet and NECN food show, "The Pre-Game Meal," making its debut on Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.
I saw a short clip of the episode late last month at an elegant kickoff party for the show at Winston Flowers in Chestnut Hill -- catered by none other than South Shore Chef Mark Ellis of The Chef’s Table in Pembroke.
While excerpts from the show silently looped on several flat screens throughout the gorgeous space, more than 250 people snacked on Ellis’s renditions of recipes that Shannon features on the show.
Most of the dishes Shannon will make are hers – developed over 15 years of cooking for her kids and her famously health-conscious husband. In that time, she’s gleaned some “serious kitchen wisdom,” she says, from family and friends, especially her mother-in-law, the ever courtside Flo Allen-Hopson.
Other show recipes come from Shannon’s guests, which include celebrity chefs – Lydia Shire, Ming Tsai – local foodie personalities, Boston athletes, and the sisterhood of athletes’ wives.
The Allens (Ray, shown above, will be a sometime guest on the show) added a live auction to the event that raised more than $15,000 for the Ray of Hope Foundation that Ray founded in 1997. The couple’s longtime commitment to helping kids -- and to healthy diet and exercise -- has assumed a new depth since their youngest son Walker was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2008. The couple now works to raise awareness about the disease and fund-raise -- both through their foundation and others as well, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Joslin Diabetes Center.
But, it’s not the Allens’ style to see a glass as half-empty. Both of them shine with optimism and warmth. Ray’s poise and bright attention was right there when I talked to him at the party – and Shannon was the sweetest thing. She hugged me (a complete stranger) when I walked into the party, as she did with everyone that came her way. Her smarts, vitality, and connections put her in a great position to bring Boston’s varied culinary community to the same table.
Beautiful food stations were set up in several flowery bowers throughout the plant-filled space, while servers circulated with finger foods.
Shannon found Ellis through Winston’s – where he’s catered other events. The Scituate native was a great fit for the launch party because he’s cooked for several athletes (including Manny Ramirez and Drew Bledsoe) and has a feel for how many of them eat.
All of the main party dishes were recipes from the show: Shannon’s great shrimp tacos; her delicious (low-fat, high-fiber, high-protein) turkey chili; her crispy unfried chicken.
Still, dishes that are good for the family table don’t necessarily translate to the demands of a buffet, so Ellis had to redesign a few.
One of his best reinterpretations was what he did with a plantain casserole (pastalone de plantanos) that Tiffany Ortiz, wife of Red Sox great David “Big Papi” Ortiz, cooks with Shannon in one episode.
To hear Ellis talk about how he created his buffet-friendly version of the dish is to get a glimpse into the depth of his culinary technique.
“I used a torchon method… and pureed the plantain, spread it on a sushi mat and layered it with a raw meat mixture rolled into a tube,” said Ellis. He then, somehow, rolled the whole thing up inside cheesecloth, blanched it, and baked it. What partygoers got were slices of the roll, similar in size to a piece of sushi, but made from Tiffany’s ingredients and tasting like the original in an easy, bite-sized piece.
So, what does Rondo cook on the show?
“He helped me prepare the unfried, crispy, baked chicken,” Shannon said in an e-mail. “I also made cornbread, 'go green beans,' and a less-sweet than usual version of a traditional southern specialty, sweet tea. Rondo is from Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up on some serious homespun Southern cuisine. I tried to incorporate a healthy twist on some of his favorites.”
In each episode, Shannon and her guest sit and talk over the meal they’ve made.
“Rajon and I chat… about food, what’s important to him on and off the basketball court and learn about his personal 'pregame meal,' as well as his thoughts about diet and exercise.”
For the first time in my life, two years ago, I became a sports fan – a Celtics fan. I saw every game they played for two seasons and had my mind blown by what they do. From watching them, I’ve learned that to be your best you have to let mistakes and regrets blow by you like the wind and focus forward – focus forward -- on your next good move.
I’ve come to love what these guys do. I can’t wait to see this show.
"The Pre-Game Meal" will air on Comcast SportsNet before Celtics games, and on NECN on Saturday and Sunday mornings.