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.

 

Homes and Homies

I look for reasons to go over the top with food. It doesn’t always happen – that is to say on a day-to-day basis at home, I’m not cooking a four course meal with an amuse-bouche du jour and dessert. Couscous-zucchini-citrus vinaigrette and some ice cream afterwards is definitely a staple. But when I can go over the top, flex my culinary muscles, I get giddy with excitement.

These moments sometimes are pushing it. Say, for instance, a friend has a great day. I can’t really be like “Oh, why don’t I do a quick something for you, plate it, serve it to you, and pair it with wine, you lucky goat you!” But when someone moves into a new apartment? That’s fair game.

At least that’s what I called fair game a couple of weeks ago. A friend from years when we only had one number to our age, Sophie, just moved from Manhattan into Brooklyn, and only five minutes from my current place, no less. I helped her move a bit, “Martha Stewarting” her kitchen, and trying to arrange as much as possible to help ease the burden of moving (cause, well, it’s no stroll around a lake). I also decided to christen her oven with a brief meal for five of us. I admit, I might have gone over the top. No courses, but different sections on our plate and pairings of flavors for sure.

Her place is beautiful. It’s a two bedroom in Prospect Heights with a wall of exposed brick. Dark wood and new appliances – a find for sure. It seemed the best place to go a little over the top. As you can tell, I try to rationalize with myself for spending over two hours in a kitchen during a beautiful summer-fall day in the city.

With Emily’s CSA at my disposal, I put seasonal produce to use: Eggplant, Beets, Carrots, Daikon Radish, Kale, Tomatoes. I added a few foreign goods like asparagus, pita, hummus, and chevre. After looking through the heaps of Saveur and Bon Appetit magazines I’ve accumulated while abroad, I decided on a menu.

Pita & Hummus with fresh cracked Black Pepper

Roasted Eggplant with Root Vegetable Salsa and Herbed Chevre

French Lentils with Kale, Roasted Tomatoes, and Butter Sauteed Asparagus

The menu isn’t too over the top but the fact that I then opened wine, poured Sophie, Emily, Rachel, and  Madeleine wine, and plated the food… like I said, maybe over the top, but I have to say: everything was finished. And enjoyed! Dessert was on Sophie, and she brought out some delicious culinary muscles of her own with a plum nectarine crisp with a hefty and hearty granola-like crust. Vanilla ice cream on the side, but of course.

We dined until we were sated, and then some, and then some even more. All together, it was a feast for good people, no matter how “over the top” it might have been. Sometimes, it needs to be a little extravagant.

Want a recipe from this post? Holler at the comment box and I’ll reply with it!

Appreciation

Emily and I went to one of the best CSA farms I’ve been to (for a couple of reasons, but one is definitely the cherry tomatoes…) and collected my family’s CSA share for that week. We were overwhelmed, overloaded, and overjoyed to have so much produce. Bags and buckets and car trunks full of produce and for good reason: we wanted to cook our families a meal that rivaled professional dinners to show our appreciation for them, and for the summer bounty.

What we had:

Squash, bell peppers, hot peppers, dill, cilantro, beans, sprouts, tomatoes (heritage, vine ripe, cherry), rainbow beets, golden beets, garlic red cabbage, escarole, endive, Swiss chard, arugula, spinach, eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and determination to make this be amazing.

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Unconventionally Korean

This is the fourth Thanksgiving week I’ve spent away from home. Once in Scotland. Once in North Carolina. Once in Italy. And now, once in Korea. Every time, though, I’ve managed to be a part of a binge-worthy meal. In Scotland, we spent all day cooking in a small University kitchen, and for good worth. The turkey and endless sides were enjoyed for hours on end in the soggy air. The Southern Feast was everything you think it would be: a decorated dining room table filled with home-cooked sides and a twelve-pound turkey for six and couches close by.  Italy was a meal started after classes, at 4, and not eaten until midnight, but enough wine to keep us content until the fennel, potatoes, and turkey came out of the oven.

And now Korea. Now I know Thanksgiving isn’t for a few days, but since I’m so far removed from Western foods, I need a week to prepare. I need each and every day to figure out what I’ll be cooking. This process is a lot more complicated than you might think. I want to cook: green beans! Yes! That’ll be easy! But then finding green beans is almost impossible. I think: mashed potatoes! Easy! Yes, but finding reasonably priced butter is almost out of the question. And rolls? Well, those I can find, but the flour over here is just a little off, that those dinner rolls just won’t be the same as grandma’s.

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Wanderings, Branded 두부, And A Challenge

Don’t you hate it when people go abroad and all of a sudden start writing in different languages, as if it were their own? Don’t you hate it when I do stuff like that? Like what is “두부?” pronounced “dubu.” Don’t you hate it when they then try to explain what it is as if you wanted to learn something. My god you just want to sit back, look at some pretty pictures and read about food!

Well I apologize. I never meant to make you angry or agitated or even frustrated. That little Korean word is “tofu.” So that makes the title a little more interesting doesn’t it? Branded tofu. Sounds standard. Continue reading