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.

South of the Equator

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When you get five cooks in a kitchen, some may think that is too many. Unfamiliar Suppers begs to differ. After two days and help from four cooks, sixteen people left a ten course meal stuffed and beaming.

To be frank, this meal was all devised coming off the heels of the last supper – Brian, an amazing cook, was so inspired and excited by Unfamiliar Suppers that he threw together an eight course tasting menu. He wanted to show off the flavors that didn’t come through in your typical Mexican, Peruvian, or Columbian restaurant. He wanted to talk through his food about the international influence of Chinese immigrants on Peru and the strong cross over of the use of rice, soups, and meat. Italy’s influence on Argentina is incredible, so were the dishes involving huge slices of Pork.

With a ready-made menu, we had to find the perfect host. We wanted someone who was easy-going, a huge help in the kitchen, and ready to get people excited about the huge tasting-menu. Who else but Miss Lois? Now that the crew was assembled, we met a few times and got straight to the food.

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Meeting on Tuesday morning, ready for a long day and night of cooking, three of us set out into the wild lands of Western Beef – a mega-supermarket that had deals for days and South American sections for weeks. Mexican spices, Columbian oils and sugars, pork that would make Brian’s grandma proud… it was the perfect bulk store.

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After the excitement of three cooks running around a massive grocery store wore off, it was about three, and we were in desperate need of starting the prep. Brian leading Lois and I, we had big plans. Stocks and desserts done, vegetables chopped and peeled and julienned and bruinoised, herbs picked, pork braised, the prep list was as long as – and for good reason – a professional kitchen’s. It wasn’t all work and no play, though – we had some adult beverages and jammed out to bad music, and I finally listened to more than one Bob Dylan song… for shame. I know. For. Shame.

The next day, after a few peaceful hours of sleep, three of us met up at the Farmer’s Market in Manhattan. If the grocery store was like kids in a candy store, the three of us set free with little monetary limit in a Farmer’s Market was like those boys in Lord of the Flies before things went so terribly wrong. Fresh breads, gorgeous sprouts, hearty root vegetables, colorful carrots, delicate greens – we needed it all. As Brian said “We are just looking for things that are beautiful. We want to make this beautiful.”

With no more than three hours left before people started to trickle in, I felt so secure given that last supper was literally thrown together in two hours to great success. The amuse was prepped. The dessert needed only a quick fry. Soups and rice dishes were as ready as any restaurant would have had them before a big hit on Saturday night.

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By 7:30 most people were there, candles were lit, and the dinner commenced. Amuse course: crispy fried bread with a reduced South American mirepoix of peppers, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. A quick three bites to start the meal – crispy, slightly sweet from the tomatoes, and wholly robust from the garlic and onions. First course was a beautiful roasted vegetable salad with mache, sunchokes, parsnips, carrots, and beets. Sweetly roasted, a slight acid bite from the mache – a gorgeous first course. Second course followed closely behind with raw sliced apples, pan roasted Brussels Sprouts, fried pancetta, parmesan all over a gastrique. And that concluded the small delicate courses, since the following bean dish started to hit hard. Trotters and tails and beans all cooked together with whiskey and beer and maple syrup set the tone for the rest of the evening. Nonstop food. We were not playing around anymore with light bites, but rather we were bulking up for the winter’s cold.  Courses kept coming, piling on top of each other, almost relentlessly in the best of ways. Major entrees with huge flavors followed by major entrees  with just slightly bigger flavors flew out of the tiny kitchenette-turned-commercial kitchen just tempting you to try to finish that last bite. Oh, you just had seven handmade gnocchi? Why don’t you try that slice of pork and that bowl of chicken soup and maybe a dinner’s worth of fried rice? Luxury and decedance was the name of this game.

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Four. Hours. Later.:  People were taking spoons full of a savory-sweet rice pudding from my hands and preparing for their final dish: dessert. I had walked around fifteen minutes before dessert making sure that people still had room. Small smiles and smaller nods said “sure, why not?” By the time Lexie and I walked around with a bowl full of powdered sugar, Mexican cinnamon, a touch of cayenne pepper, and freshly fried churros as well as a bowl full of melted lavender chocolate dipping sauce, people were trying to snatch a second churro. Despite the fact that most people just finished eight large courses, we had people demanding, not even requesting, a second and third helping of dessert – a success at the very least.

Wine, beer, and cocktails paired. Plates demolished. New faces met. Unfamiliar Suppers was a success.

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The Internationality of South America

Pan con Hogao

Roasted Vegetable Salad with Mache

Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Apples, Pancetta, Gastrique

Frijoles con Garra with Trotters, Tails, Plantains, Limes

Braised Pork with Roasted Apple Mash, Honey, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Caraway

Gnocchi, Chimichurri, Roasted Pork

Fried Arroz con Pollo

Sudadito de Pollo

Savory Rice Pudding

Spiced Churros with Lavender Chocolate

 

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Eight and Three Make Twenty

IMG_3026The past three days have been recuperating days – those that find themselves done by ten pm instead of two am. They have been short, sweet, and relaxing mainly to make up for last weekend’s visits, last minute holiday shopping, and preparations which all culminated in a sixteen to twenty person supper club.

To start off what felt like a marathon sprint, my mom arrived in town last Thursday to celebrate the holidays I didn’t get to have at home this year. That following Friday her partner showed up just in time for margaritas, fish tacos, and guacamole at my local Mexican restaurant.

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Every moment in those two days, sparing work here and there, was jam packed with foods and walking and finding store that may have been just across the street even though we walked five blocks out of the way, and wines and laughter and serious talking about futures and family. Saturday rolled around, heralding in their departure after an introductory Indian food delivery dinner. I can’t hate – the Indian food in my neighborhood is almost required on a weekly basis.

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Around ten pm Saturday night, I started to cook for what would become an eight-course meal. My original menu was four courses with one wine pairing and three other suggestions. After talking with my kitchen partner, it quickly became a conversation as to how many courses we could actually do.

We need cheeses.

Don’t you think we should have some sort of bread course?

What about breaking up the soup and salad?

Isn’t Fairway open?

The short and sweet answer is: no. Fairway, for those unaccustomed with greatness, is the best grocery store in the greater New York area (dispute me, I know there are close seconds). They have three locations that I know of in the city, one being in a huge warehouse down in Red Hook. The location is incredible, overlooking the Statue of Liberty. Why it is the best is because the aisles never stop. There are aisles for days. The produce section is as large as most grocery stores. The organic section? Bigger than two of my childhood homes. I taste tapenade and coffee and bread and cheeses and olives as I shop. Best yet, it is the cheapest I know of.

Needless to say, this was both of our stores of choice. Strapping my seatbelt on at seven to make the store’s closing at nine, I rushed down there. No matter if I had left at noon or midnight, the store is still in disrepair after Sandy.

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The day after Sandy, I went around Redhook, taking pictures trying to grasp the effects of the disastrous hurricane, but since then, I almost think – in some optimistic corner of my brain – that everything has returned to normal. It hasn’t – there are an insane amount of people still without power and homes. So as a side note, please donate your time or efforts to help them.

With my mind reeling from the hurricane and how I was going to get the ingredients to start to prep for Sunday, I panicked and went to my safe place: Trader Joe’s. You’ll have a hard time beating the prices of that place. The produce might not be the best, but their quesadilla taste tests are so satisfying after waiting in line for five minutes.

Home by eight, the moms gone by nine, I was in the kitchen cooking at ten. Come four in the morning, I finally set my head on my pillow and drifted off for a three hour nap before the next day’s work started to call me awake.

A wonderfully difficult Sunday shift left me tired by four and racing home by six.

I don’t know how we’re going to do this.

I’m so tired.

What did you actually get done?

Do you have a peeler?

What wine did they order?

We need to get baguettes.

My good friend and kitchen guru by my side by six thirty, we started to chop, peel, dice our way to freedom.

What seems insane, is that although I made the cake and soup (what were ostensibly the first and last courses) the prior night, we still had six courses to cook in two hours. People were to show up by eight. They started the flood around quarter after seven.

With our hearts racing, minds reeling, and knives precisely slicing, we had to make a game plan. The risotto was still crunchy. The chicken needed another thirty minutes. The eggplant had come out quicker than we had predicted, so the menu changed again. It broke down from four to six to eight courses and bowls and plates were starting to be wiped and readied.

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With people sitting comfortably in the main room sipping on hot toddies and chilled white wines, I bring out a massive cutting board filled with cheeses and crackers. Followed shortly by a shaved Fennel salad. The night progressed steadily with a break around course five.

After the Brussels course, a good friend and cook at one of the restaurants came strolling into the kitchen bearing a flower.

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I brought a flower, he giggled.

Brian, please, help us with the chicken. You love carving, right?

Yeah, put me in the game.

And that was it, he became our third, throwing in suggestions, helpful tips, and gorgeous meat carving. By the time the olive oil cake came into play, he started in on melting the chocolate without question, asking only how I wanted the dish plated.

Oui Chef, he said, almost as sternly as if we were behind the line six short hours ago.

Three hours came and went and people were sedated, sated, and so very content. Throughout the night we saw twenty people, serving vegetarian options, and by the end, I passed quickly into a dreamy state of exhausted bliss.

No matter how tired I may be, it will always be worth it.

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Eight and Three Menu

Cheese Board of Brie, Smoked Gouda, Chevre, New Zealand Cheddar, Olives, and crackers

Toasted Baguette with Compound Truffle Butter with Fresh Heirloom Bruschetta and Basil

Shaved Fennel Salad on Mixed greens with Sliced Apples, Orange Supremes, and Rice Vinaigrette

Smoked Tomato Soup with Ricotta Salata and Pea Shoots

Roasted Cauliflower on Seared Brussels Sprouts with Turkey Bacon and Roasted Garlic

Pureed Sweet Potatoes with Maple Syrup, Bourbon, and Roasted Chicken

Barley Risotto with Roasted Root Vegetables and Compound Herb Butter

Olive Oil Cake on Salted Chocolate with Orange Zest

 

 

Want one? Get at U.S. unfamiliarsuppers@gmail.com

To unfamiliar places, people, and food

Unfamiliarity


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Here’s my plan (maybe you’ve heard it, maybe you haven’t, yet):

In conjunction with 20somethingmeals, I want to cook dinners in unfamiliar places.

Explanations are duly needed, I acutely understand. What this will become is a traveling dinner party. A supper club for those who want the gathering to happen in their house, and an experiment in unfamiliar territories in both location, company, and culinary geography for myself.

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How it all boils down is: after being invited (but of course, I am a gentleman through and through) I will come over to hosts’ homes, tread delicately through their kitchen to find the cheese grater, the cutting board, the emulsion blender, and the dull knives. I’ll find out how accurate the oven may be, if the mustard in the fridge is past due — or that smell is just authenticity — and cook coursed-out suppers to fuel the host’s dinner party.

I buy the ingredients. I cook the food. I serve and talk about it. I’ll even pair wines (I’ve been known to do that a few times before).

The hosts need only set a date, talk to me about what kind of food they want, how many people might be coming over for their dinner party, and I’ll do the rest.

The caveat? None, other than I might take pictures of the food and write about it later.

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In return, I’ll put out a donation jar just in case the food was that good.

If this sounds dope, or cool, or on just plain swell, email me and we’ll start thinking about what foods you want. The five borough are options. In the future, so are other cities… just sayin, my dear west coasters…

To suppers, in unfamiliar places!

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Unfamiliar suppers email: unfamiliarsuppers@gmail.com

And just in case you’ve ever wanted to email 20somethingmeals, there is an email address now. 20somethingmeals@gmail.com

Snow Falling, Doorbells Ringing

The night before the supper club, I was so sure I had it all together. I had made the soup, the carrot cake was done save the icing, most of the produce was cut and ready to sizzle in a pan with heaps of garlic, salt, and pepper. Little did I know, by 7pm the next night, I would still be waiting on the beets to roast, the kimchi to caramelize and the mushrooms to braise. By 7pm, people were also knocking on my door.

4pm (the day of): I got out of work and snagged a friend to trudge across lower Manhattan for a few things I still needed. You know, the small things: bread, kimchi, bowls, forks. For some reason I thought my apartment had enough things to feed twenty people, and I’d just make people eat out of bowls. Thankfully my friend wanted me to step my game up a little, and took me through the evolving blizzard into the depths of Chinatown for bowls and mushrooms. Once inside, our legs were soaked with heavy snowflakes, and I felt like I had been transported back to Taiwan or Korea. Really, it was like neither of these places, but it had been almost a year and a half since I had been in a large Asian market, whose air was heavy with fresh fish and other fruits of the sea. The large root vegetables on display in front of me and the lighting a bit dim. The floors were dangerously slippery and the candy section was filled with taro and bean paste candies. Next to the teapots sat digestive aids. It was a flash back, however vague the references. My friend ushered me through my nostalgic haze to find bowls, and we bounced, back into the tundra that New York City had become up to find the last of our ingredients.

5:30pm: Finally back home, arms tired from carrying half of my total ingredients, warm (our heat has just kicked on… how serendipitous), and excited, I suddenly became overwhelmed. With only an hour and a half before my wonderful friends were to be over, I still had to complete my menu. Roommates would come through asking if they could help out; “Should I cut these onions?” “Want me to wash that bowl?” “Did you see my yogurt?” No, stop that, and oops it’s in my dish. It was chaotic and frenzied and so g-d fun. Needless to say, I mildly blacked-out during that time. But somehow, I had roasted beets, and made candied almonds. Bread was toasting in the oven and Brussels were hanging out, wilting ever-so-slightly and marinating with kimchi (which, by the way, was sold to me by a work-a-holic Korean man whose produce stand is open for about 20 hours a day. He exclaimed upon my buying kimchi “Oh! You like the kimchi? You’re white though”. How sweet it was to feel a tad bit back home in Korea), and lentils were soaking up the last dregs of broth.

6:30pm: My first bailout.

6:45pm: My numbers have plummeted: 18 people to 9. It was the storm’s monstrous snow drop that swayed people. Considering the MTA had just shut down, and there was a possibility that they might shut down again, I couldn’t blame anyone.

6:50pm: Ten more people had re-confirmed. Numbers saved.

7pm: The first doorbell rings.

7:45pm: Soup is served.  A butternut squash and parsnip soup started off with a garlicky mirepoix and vegetable stock. Cooked for two hours, and pureed, I let it sit overnight to let the flavors blend and intensify. I served it hot, with toasted baguette and a hefty drizzle of white truffle oil.

8:15pm: The second course is laid out in the middle of the table. Roasted crimson and golden beets with olive oil, salt, and pepper to bring out their natural sweetness and earthiness. The beets were let cool for ten minutes and tossed with freshly roasted and cardamom candied almonds. The sweet crunch balanced the tender earthy root. Soup-like lentils, heavily seasons, came with a robust mirepoix (heavy celery, caramelized onions, and roasted carrots). Chunks of garlic found their way from bite to bite. Off to the left sat Brussels Sprouts sautéed in a wok with butter and kimchi. The Brussels sweetened their aggressive pungency with browned butter and balanced out the sharp, and crispy kimchi, all coming together to create the perfect bite: salty, sweet, earthy, and bright. The meat-main of the night was a roasted Portabella mushroom topped with sautéed kale, onions, and thick smoked bacon. Let me put it this way: for six mushroom tops, there was a pound of bacon. It was no vegetarian’s paradise (or… was it?).

8:30pm: The last person gets there, worn and battered from getting lost in the neighborhood with a fiddle that was momentarily left in a liquor store, a bottle of wine, and a dead cell phone. Her story was my favorite part of the night.

8:45pm: The Brussels Sprouts bowl was empty.

9:00pm: Where there were 8 bottles of wine, there are now three.

10:00pm: Brenda, who never showed up, is by default heart-broken. There is no more cake.

12:30am: The final guest rolls out into the winter wonderland on their way home and I gaze at the battle ground that I had created. And I felt content.

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.

Southern Charm

The South (capital s included) does something strange to you. I lived there for the first two years of my life, and more recently the four years of college. I didn’t come back north of the Mason Dixon line often, so I can say that I lived down there. More often than not, I’d take my vacations in Savannah or Charleston, sometimes Atlanta, and one summer: all over the South. And as a result, I have this strange affinity for Southern things. I have this strange pride for Southern fare, be that food or houses or the draw; there is something that the South can do to you to make you fall in love.

As tried and true readers might know, I also have an affinity for cooking people lots of food. Sometimes it is lots of people lots of food, like last Sunday. I sent out an email around Thursday saying “I have a ton of food. I want to cook it. Come over and eat it. Bring nothing but yourself, hunger, and maybe a friend.” After a few responses, and knowledge that it wasn’t just going to be me and my roommate taking down a feast of food, I started to devise a plan.

The first ingredients that I looked at, which in turn shaped my entire menu, were collard greens. These leathery, huge, elephant ear-like greens are a staple in my southern diet. Anytime I see them on the menu, I get them. With bacon, or without. With maple syrup or without. Slow-cooked for about twelve hours so that they are best eaten with a spoon or only blanched and in that case, a knife would be honorable.

After that, my CSA veggies fell into place. Collards with Brooklyn cured ham. Cornbread biscuits with buttermilk. Mashed potatoes with a half pound of butter, and a half pound of cheddar cheese. A spinach salad with orange surpremes and braised balsamic onions.  Mustard roasted Squash and carrots so that they were soft, mushy, and freaking delectable. Coleslaw made of cabbage, celery root, and golden beets. Lentil soup with kale and parsnips (prepared like split pea soup). And for those brave enough to trudge on through another course, or those simply holding the idea that there must be a dessert as truth: banana cream pie.

 

The meal started at 8:15 and ended three hours later with a bottle of wine or three, courses and talk of New York and the South and all the meanwhile, sitting at the head of the table, I felt I had provided for my friends, just as any good Southern Family would. They traveled to me, so I fed them. It’s simply southern, in a third story Brooklyn apartment.