Unsuccessful Pranks: Seven Attempts

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 Break a prank down, and it takes an idea, planning, practice, patience, laughs, reactions, sometimes un-pleasantries, and success. Break an Unfamiliar Supper down and it takes an idea, a menu, planning, practice, patience and focus, many laughs, reactions, work, and success. It seemed  perfect that our last Unfamiliar Supper was held on every school kid’s favorite day: April fool’s day.

The day after Easter Sunday Brunch with a group of caring and amazing ladies, Lexie and I headed back into San Francisco proper, really into the heart of hipsterdom of the West Coast – The Mission.  Alex – a good friend of mine from High School whose message on Facebook prompted the whole trip out to the West Coast – had been so kind to open his home the night prior, allowing us to stay over so that we could get a fresh and clean start in the morning.  We woke in the morning to beautiful blue skies, an empty home and what we came to find out was an empty kitchen.

I had been emailing back and forth a few weeks back about who may show up, how many people, what the hosts wanted to eat only to get a lot of “We’ll get people there” and “Oh I’m so excited!” and “I eat every kind of food! Just not meat!” and even “Oh, you should check with Alex as to what they have in the kitchen because I think they have nothing to cook with.” As someone who’s life revolves around cooking and serving and feeding people and being around food, I didn’t really understand what “nothing” was when it came to kitchen supplies. They have a pot, right? Salt? Pepper? That should be all good. Turns out, they had next to nothing. Condiments and beer, that belonged to a roommate who wasn’t there, two pots, 20 forks, and no baking pans. “We have nothing.”

No matter, Lex and I were in for a small challenge, seeing as the space was incredible: huge ceilings, wonderful open floor plan, massive bay windows, open aired and comfortable kitchen. And seeing as Alex had been so kind to trust me with the place for the day to prepare, we started jamming out. Door open, fresh air, beat-filled music, and incredible ingredients from gardens, Berkeley Bowl, and the local Asian Market (Shout out to Duc Loi’s Japanese, Korean, and Meat departments: O! How I would live in that grocery store). It was a morning that encouraged all aspects of Unfamiliar Suppers, that is to say being in the kitchen cooking with amazing ingredients in a beautiful new city with a good friend and colleague is exactly where I belong.

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By four, the we had set up the mise-en-place with make-shift quart containers, two of the desserts had been made and were setting, I had run to the local Salvation Army to pick up a braising pan large enough to take Duc Loi’s full supply of short ribs that sat braising for four hours, the soba noodles were cooked and chilling, and the shitakes were marinating and preparing to be course one.  Thinking it was all under control, we stepped out for a few more things to get ready for the dinner itself: Tecates and burritos the size of babies. By five we were sustained and sated, ready for complete Unfamiliarity.

Complete Unfamiliarity in the sense that we knew only four people there out of the 20 that ended showing up.  But nothing brings people together (cue cliché) like food, right? Slowly but surely people started to filter in. Alex “found” a case of wine in his room to share with the crowd, people started to find their spots (see: couch, table, standing, what became a “chef’s pass”) and the supper began.

The first course: accidental mini banh-mi’s with roasted shitake mushrooms, fresh cucumber, carrots, and yuzu mayonnaise.  Tender, savory, slightly sweet.

The second course: Thai-style lettuce wraps with scrambled spicy tofu, with a hoisin-siracha glaze with cilantro and celery garnish. Fresh, bright, savory, with a touch of spice.

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The third course: Cold Soba noodle salad with a peanut sauce garnished with shredded broccoli, carrots, pickled shallots sliced nori, whiskey, pickled mustard seeds, and finely sliced snow peas. Hearty, filling, cold and refreshing.

The fourth course: Coconut Curry soup with Japanese Eggplant, baby shitake mushrooms, Thai basil, and cilantro. The perfect amount of mouth-coating savory sweetness with a bit of heat.

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The fifth course, and final savory course: Braised and Roasted Short Ribs rubbed in a hoisin glaze served with Mirin rice, nori, and a sesame fried egg. The meat literally fell off the bone. In all reality, the bone was just for decoration.

The sixth course: Cold brewed Earl Grey Milk Tea with Boba. Floral, mildly sweet, gorgeous texture.

The Last course: Matcha Panna Cotta. Honestly, what a perfect way to end an incredibly huge meal: soft, sugary creamy Panna Cotta with a hint of vegetal Matcha, coming with that caffeine to keep you up and digesting.

Three hours later, we had seen a lot of excited faces, heard a lot of laughs, received a few pats on the back, let ourselves enjoy a few Tecates, and only could pack up one Tupperware full of left overs. A success, with no hang ups.

There is no proper way to end this, except to say: THANK YOU SAN FRANCISCO (Alex, Max, Evan, Laura, Rachel, and Daphne. Thank you.)

 

unfamiliarsuppers@gmail.com if you want to set one up of your own.

Surprise Easter

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The facts: A month out from the trip, I contacted a friend of a best friend. She was a known foodie, and lover of parties/gatherings/get togethers. She lived in Berkeley or – as she ashamedly pointed out – Albany. She had Sunday and Tuesday free. We settled in on Sunday to host a brunch at her house for about 14 people. We wanted to do a nice three course meal, keep it relatively inexpensive, and keep the brunch drinks flowing. That Thursday before,  the number of people wanting to come dropped from 14 to 11 in basically an instant, and we didn’t quite know why.
The reality: Turns out, none of us had realized it was Easter Sunday.

With that little cognitive mishap out of the way, Unfamiliar Suppers wanted to give them the best meal they could have on Easter. Fresh breads for sure. Jams. Eggs. French toast. Berries. Bloodies. Bloody Marys as much as they could handle. Bloody Marys that demanded us to run out in the middle of service to go grab more supplies. Bloodies.

Keep in mind that this brunch was coming on the heals of the Berkeley 25 person dinner the night before. So as we fell asleep in a room just twenty feet from the kitchen we just prepped and cleaned in, we knew that we would be walking those ten paces in the morning to start beating eggs and kneading dough.

But lo and behold, we woke up with a spring in our step and sunshine on our faces to cook the best Easter Bunny Lovely Lady Brunch they had ever seen.

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Rachel’s house was amazing – beautiful huge windows, open floor plan, massive kitchen, outdoor patio, it was the thing of dreams for a supper / brunch club to come cook in. With most of the meal prepped at Laura’s house just a mile away, we got to out there around noon. By 12:30, ladies were enjoying fresh baked breads and Bloody Marys, sitting around a table illuminated by the sun peaking through heavy rain clouds. When 3:30 rolled around, everyone was happy, full, and tipsy off of Easter.

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The first course we put out was fresh sourdough toast with compound nori butter and maple-rosemary biscuits with rhubarb jam. A nice pastry board that had the savory butter with even a touch of umami from the dried seaweed, and the sweet rhubarb with a touch of tang.

Soon to follow came two gorgeous cast-iron pan cooked caramelized onion, cheddar, and swiss chard frittatas  with sliced avocado served along side a cucumber salad and potatoes roasted two ways: oven roasted potatoes with either rosemary, salt, and pepper or kimchi. Savory or spicy and tangy. The kimchi potatoes flew off people’s plates, even when only half of the massive slice of frittata was devoured.

The grand finale – oven baked bread pudding French toast served with maple roasted bananas, macerated strawberries, and whipped cream. Honestly who could say no other than an adamant gluten intolerant or severe lactose hater?

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What was incredible about this brunch, is that everyone was so happy to see each other, share stories, sit and revel in the fact that nothing had to be done today not only because it was a Sunday but also because it was a Holiday, and everyone was ecstatic about the food – they clapped when we came out. Clapped! it made me blush, no lies. Pictures snapped. Bloodies drank. Smiles shared. Naps planned.

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Happy Easter.

Wander with Unfamiliar Suppers

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When you get off the plane, dazed, confused, and hyped up on airplane coffee, you know your trip is going to be magical when an overcast sky doesn’t get in the way of your ecstatic gasps at every new architectural design, every flower in the next window, or hill you have to climb. The first two days spent in San Francisco were “acclimating” days, better know as “play” days.  We figured we had to take in all of the fresh blooming spring flowers, and who could resist walking up the San Francisco hills, let alone say no to someone who offered to take you around to Oakland’s community gardens? It was silly to think of working nonstop, and to be honest: who appreciated a day old mise-en-place? The fact was, these wandering days with no true agenda lead me to one of the best days I’ve had in some time.

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Lucky for me, three of my favorite people were in San Francisco at the same time – a best friend from high school, one from college, and obviously my traveling companion. One night after an impromptu leather workshop and subsequent Pakistani food, I found myself catching up with my high school friend. We planned the next day in the sun with a run, wandering through the mission, fresh juices, and bakery visits. Afterwards, Lexie and I rode over what seems to be one of the longest bridges in America, save the one leading to New Orleans, to be taken on a tour of Oakland’s community gardens. Sun shining, Motown music blasting from the garden’s neighbor’s porch, we midst of a free-for-all in the blossoming garden of greens, peas, edible flowers, and herbs — and this was only the first of three gardens. On our second day there, we had sat in the upstairs of a coffee shop, writing with jittery hands out our menus. Some were complete. The first was not. Dessert wasn’t anywhere near figured out until our last garden, where we found rhubarb taking over an entire flower box – Lexie needed to have it, and I was struck by inspiration. Strawberries weren’t quite in season, and to be honest – strawberry rhubarb isn’t my bread and butter for a dessert. It’s good, I admit. But it’s played out. Sorry.

 

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Resting for a second in my college buddy’s home for a split second with Jasper the house cat, we geared up to go to a house party in what was to be one of the nicest homes I’ve ever been in. Who knew the Oakland hills had magical sunsets and talented concerts? On top of I all, during the concert, the whole street’s power went out, and the artists lit candles, broke out the acoustics, and howled at the moon in beautiful harmony.

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The next morning, in what could only be called an afterglow, Lexie and I inventoried our garden findings, and took Ms. Zoe’s – a great friend and consequently our garden tour guide the previous day – advice to head to Berkeley Bowl for the rest of our goods.

Now, let me just say candidly: Berkeley Bowl has some of the most aggressive cart-drivers, but it is all worth it since it may be the best grocery store in the country. The selection was incredible and I cannot speak highly enough of the layout – 60% produce (conventional and organic in separate sections), 15% bulk items (thank you fresh soba noodles and every grain you could think of), 5% wine, and the rest funky canned goods.

By 1pm we were home, organized, and properly cooking. As we had known from before, Lex and I simultaneous busted out the preparation in no time. “What do you want with this?” “Oh, I got that tart” “Okay, so I’ve done this and this, what can I do for you?” “Are you doing okay” “Holy hell I get focused chopping for so long” “Let’s just go play in the sun for a second?” “Where is Jasper?” It was yet again great to be working in the kitchen with her.

One of the perks of Unfamiliar Suppers, for those who cook with U.S., is how incredibly giving the hosts are. Every home we went into, the host would give us the freedom to do whatever we needed to do with their kitchen, allowing us full creativity. We were able to have both their support, their kitchen, and freedom of expression. Sometimes those kitchens are incredible, sometimes they need us to use the toaster oven as the make-shift spice rack. The top of the refrigerator is for oils. The kitchen table is covered with chopping boards with no room for a diner quite yet. Maybe the oven door is a bit too close to the refrigerator so it hesitates mid-open. And maybe you have some of the best cooking experiences ever there.

The first course was complete. The second on its way. The third was prepped and sitting in the refrigerator until further notice. The dessert sat on the coffee table, cooling, out of sight out of mind (as many baked goods must be during the cooling process, mind you).

By 6:30 pm, we were set. The kitchen had been cleared, cleaned, and the prep-station for serving had moved into another room for the time being. People started to wander in, hugging as they passed the kitchen, asking if Laura was here, wondering what the name of our little supper club was “was it unfamiliarity?” “it’s supper club nyc right?” “Familiar foods, for sure.”

When everyone had taken their seat in the candlelit living room around two tables borrowed from a church just up the road (and needing to be back the next day by 9am for Easter services), I turned to Lex to find out how exactly we would serve. “Buffet?” “Plate it?” “Let’s do it Downton Abbey style.”

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First course out was a local Greek-style salad. Red and green lettuces, frisse, massaged kale, rice stuffed grape leaves, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, shallots, rice wine vinaigrette, nasturtiums. Not many words are needed to describe how beautiful that dish was.

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We wanted to keep with very classic courses, so we followed the salad course with a pasta dish. While we were prepping, we also came upon the cover of one of Laura’s cookbooks, and had to make it too: roasted eggplant with baked ricotta. So as people’s appetites were piqued by local greens, we hit them with a fresh basil-parmesan pesto soaked pasta cooked with white wine, shallots, and capers for added acidity all twirled with Downton excellence and topped with basil chiffonade.

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With spring coming, we chose a fish dish over a meat course. Next was Cod Amandine. Beautiful cod fillets swimming in white wine baked – almost poached – for twenty minutes with the smallest bok choy florets and whole cherry tomatoes along side almond slivers. The dish was light, acidic, filling, and vibrant. The cod was paired with Israeli couscous cooked with coconut milk, giving a bit of heft and sweetness to the final savory course, and of course – heaps and heaps of herbs.

As Lexie pointed out while roaming around the gardens: we should do a rhubarb jam because it is the perfect plant to make jam out of. Cook it with sugar and it jellies itself. Nature’s wonder. So jelly it, we did. We had to do something with strawberries – but not the main stage. Rather, I wanted a bit of acidity to balance the incredible sweetness of any jam. Lemon tarts. And since lavender grows literally nine steps from the kitchen, those lemon tarts became all that much classier: Lemon lavender tarts with freshly macerated strawberries, local rhubarb jam, with a touch of whipping cream. Insane.

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Five hours after the first guest arrived, two cases of beer, six bottles of wine, many conversations, one masterpiece drawing, and 25 full bellies, we called the first Unfamiliar Supper a success. In a few hours we were to be getting up to start the process all over, but this time for Sunday brunch.

 

Sun and Produce

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As we rolled down an open freeway in Brooklyn or Queens with the sunrise sprawling out before our sleepless eyes, we blasted Notorious B.I.G.’s Goin back to Cali and listened to the lyrics mimic our lives “we got the 7:30 flight.”  We started to question the idea of staying up all night for 7:30am flight, but by 11am San Francisco time, after a smooth and restful flight, we were satisfied: we made it to the west coast.

My friend, colleague, and cohort in Unfamiliar Suppers headed west for one reason: to cook. Or rather, to cook, eat, catch up with old friends, run on the beach, soak up much need vitamin D, explore new neighborhoods, listen to live music, gather produce from vendors and gardens, and drink Tecate. That last one wasn’t foreseen, but turns out it happened more often than not at our suppers.

Why west, though? Why not south? Or even to Texas? Back in December of 2012, I wrote a blog on what may be called the first Unfamiliar Supper, well the first proper one at that. A dear friend in San Francisco so kindly mentioned it to all of his friends and got them excited about it. My last words on that social media monster, Facebook were “name a date, I’ll hop on a plane.” A month later, I had bought a ticket for Lexie and myself, and we had one gig in our planner: The last weekend in March we would be cooking for Alex, Max, and his house.

The rest started to fall into place over the upcoming weeks – turns out my university has quite a large chapter of alumni out in the Bay Area, and most remembered liking or at least standing my cooking. Now that I had made it semi-official with a whole Supper Club, 25 people signed up to eat a four course meal the last Saturday of the month, in Berkeley, at one of my kindest, sweetest friends from college’s home.

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The last meal, a Sunday brunch, became – in my mind – one of the most memorable Easters in my memory. Fourteen lovely ladies gathered around a table, chowing down on three courses and enjoying the festivities of Bloody Marys and each other’s company.

Over the next week, I’ll delve into each of those Supper’s ups and downs and pigs’ heads. Until then, consider this scenario from a New Yorker in the middle of winter. How happy would you be?

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