Lists

Grocery lists go further than just cataloguing what your fridge and pantry might need. They are more than simple accumulations of “what if I had that” and “but I thought I had pasta tucked away in there somewhere…” They go into your week: your hopes, your dreams, your plans, your guesses that maybe on Thursday, you might not need to have the chicken defrosted because maybe he grew a pair and finally asked you out. As you take out the pen you “accidentally“ stole from dinner last Tuesday because you liked the click after you had to have that dessert glass of wine after a cocktail, bottle of white, and bottle of red—with your three other friends, though!—you, even if you aren’t the planner of the year or even of your household, start to plan. You remember texts and emails that tell you on this day you’re supposed to meet them here and that other person at some restaurant that was just written up in the New York Times. What is it that might transpire this week ahead?

Normally when I find myself starting this list, I am standing on a lost solider of cereal from earlier that day, barefoot, staring at my stove and cook books hoping that I’ll get inspired. This week, I think, I won’t cook that couscous dish again, I should switch it up. No more kale salads. And it’s not considered cooking Indian when you order it online. Maybe tomorrow, Monday, I’ll come home from my yoga class and try that broccoli rabe, sundried tomato, fresh mozzarella with cold-pressed olive oil and Himalayan pink salt followed by a Cornish game hen stuffed simply with goat cheese and dried cherries soaked in red wine. No big. That olive oil and salt will do me good in the long run and Tuesday’s lunch will be a sautéed version of Monday’s appetizer but with toasted baguette I’ll grab on my way to work from the local bakery. Wednesday I have plans, and Thursday can be “Thanksgiving-style sandwich” lunch day, and I’ll just need to make some mayonnaise and grab a few things of iceberg to complete my gourmet lunch. I’ll try to spice up that Kale salad sometime this week, and a fresh cold Spring soup is what I’ll be in the mood for by Friday.

But Monday’s yoga class turns into a run, and drinks with friends that I haven’t seen in two months, because that’s how frequently it appears I see good friends in New York City, and then dinner turns from a two course feast into a postponed dinner for me and a friend on Wednesday but then that falls through at 4pm on Wednesday and here’s the thing: I haven’t played this game just once.

So back to me standing on crumbs, barefoot: I try to factor in the spontaneity that will be undoubtedly thrust upon me throughout the week; from leaving my door to getting on the subway, readjusting my pupils as I come into the sunlit streets of NoHo on my way to work, my plans for the evening have most likely changed twice. I know that whatever might be penciled in, is in pencil for a reason. We are all busy, and to combat that, we create some sort of structure in how those three meals (or maybe just two because you have a deadline to meet) come every day. What I find is grocery lists are a way to control the ebb and flow of our social lives; these scratches on paper scraps are the outline of how we define the tenuous line between what we can create for ourselves in the upcoming tangible future and what will be created for us, and how we chose a preference between the two. So when I note that I have two open dinners, two lunches, and four breakfasts, there is no way that my grocery list looks anything like recipes to dishes, rather ideas of what I might want to eat (see: pasta, arugula, olives  II  cornish hen, cherry, goat cheese  II  cod, lemon, bacon, avocado).

Without doubt, I will go to the grocery store, forget whatever list I tried to make, and try to recreate my week from memory and those items, too. I will hope that actually he doesn’t stand me up on Tuesday, and we can try that little noodle spot on the Bowery. I dream that I will have the self control to go straight to the gym after my grueling 12 hour day of service and administrative work, come home chugging a coconut water, and dive right into prep for a proper two course meal, finishing off with a heavenly Levain bakery cookie. And I plan on not sticking to 100% of those scheduled dates.

 

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.

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.

 

Cut Brussels Sprouts And Simmering Soup

Ah, just got out work. What should I do? Hop on my bike and bike around the island? Eh. Go to the gym and hang out with some free weights? That could be fun. Grab some overly priced kale salad from that delicious little spot in SoHo? I would love to, but that spot in Brooklyn is so much better. Sigh. Go to the grocery store to pick up the start of food for twenty people to come over tomorrow. Getting better. Go to the farmers market down the street with a thirty pound bag of groceries to pick up discounted vegetables because it’s tens minutes until close? Hi, winter, I laugh in your face. Cook a soup to feed an army, start Brenda’s favourite thing in the world, cut about two hundred fifty Brussels Sprouts, and clean four heads of garlic and ten onions? Yes. Please.

Part of the magic you see in restaurants is, in a large way, because of those dedicated preparation cooks coming in at 7am to clean garlic, dice tomatoes, blanch everything green you would ever see on your plate (that isn’t raw) and essentially set up all of the mise-en-place [meez- uhn- pla-se). That is to say, when you come in, get your water – no ice – slice of lemon, appetizer, middle, and entrée, all of that is possible because most of those julienned, chopped, pickled things are set right next to cook’s massive cutting boards and sharpened knives.  When you try to do something that fancy at home, there is no way to match the speed of restaurants.

I was planning on cooking a dinner for twenty. If I had been a catering system, it would have taken me maybe three hours to get this set, and plated. Instead, it took me two days.

Two days ago, I hit up the grocery store after work to find all of my bulk items. Vinegar, oils, garlic, onions, squashes, grains, you know – those things that are necessary for a dinner party – supper club – to really take shape. Equipped with all of those in one bag (Trader Joe’s people really know how to pack a paper bag) I walked those six busy blocks to what was possibly the most sparse Green Market I’ve seen in New York history. I stopped for a second to really reflect on why that was – the storm approaching, Hurricane Sandy that just took a huge toll on people in the neighboring areas (please do your part helping those areas most affected…). It was four stands touting honey, two stands dedicated to baked breads, and one stand lacking most of those winter vegetables you love. No beets. No sunchokes. No potatoes larger than a fingerling. Only four bags of parsnips. No mushrooms. And for cry out loud: NO COLLARDS. It was shocking enough for me to alter my menu a bit. No more sunchoke puree. The beet dish had to chill a bit – I had no hopes of making it my main. And collard greens had to change to another tough cooking green. It was okay, because bacon makes everything better.

Once home, I felt invigorated. Here I was with all of this produce and ingredients in general, and a clean kitchen. I had sharpened knives, and three huge cutting boards. Let the games begin.

Earlier, on my train ride to the first food stop, I had mapped out what needed to happen that night, and what could happen the next day – that is: I was a Chef de Cuisine mapping out what I would tell myself as my own prep cook. Roast beets. Make soup. Start Brenda’s favourite. Cut Brussels. Create Mirepoix.

Three hours, I had gotten so far – the soup was pureed a la my first Brooklyn restaurant job’s amuse-bouche. The spiced carrot cake was sitting, aluminum foiled on my fridge. The back of my top shelf were lined with small bowls of split Brussels Sprouts. And with all of the dishes cleaned, I stood over my parsnip – butternut squash soup made with onion, garlic, celery, carrots, salt, pepper, and rice wine vinegar and enjoyed the soothing smooth taste. The squash had gotten enough direct heat to release its wonderfully autumnal sweetness with the parsnips balancing it out, brining nutty qualities and the mirepoix founding it in good, hearty, French style. With truffle oil on its way tomorrow, I was ready to go hard the next day. Little did I know I would have to trek through blizzard conditions to find Chinese bowls, French Bread, and Italian oils. Messenger, Delivery boy, Prep Cook, Sous, and CDC – you know, this is exactly why I love cooking supper clubs.