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.

 

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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

Happy Birthday. Happy 4th.

Fair warning: this post is going to be rambling and sporadic and jittered just like the fingers that type it. At present, I have about one month left in Korea. What does that mean? High speed, caffeine, little sleep, vitamin water (I have a strange addiction to it, for some reason these days), always saying yes to meal invitations, absent mindedness on over drive, and sweat. Lots of sweat. Not because I’m running from place to place but July brings the hottest and most humid of times to Korea, which is just unfortunate for my worn-out wardrobe and dwindling laundry detergent.

Like I said, rambling.

But in more uplifting and less pungent news, my last month here in Korea is jam packed, starting today with the dearest of friends coming to visit me from Paris via home. She is non-stop excited which makes me even more energetic and happy to show her around the city that I’ve claimed maybe one to many (or one to little, few, less?) times. She is as in love with food as I, but with a slight challenge – she’s a vegetarian. So it will be a hurdle to introduce her to the kimchi that I devour every day since it is made with shrimp paste to aid in fermentation. But it will be a synch to show her the bibimbap I’ve grown to love for an easy lunch. It will also be a joy to take her to the vegan buffet after a long hike up a mountain, and to show her around museums, temples, palaces, markets, street art, cafes, aquariums, and simply put: a whole different world.

From there we take slight nap then my southern soul sister comes to visit fresh out of rural China. She has been a brave ol’ chap for the past year living in a place where showers are heated by the sun, pig fat is a main course, and if your not too careful – you’ll forget that the “black tofu” is actually coagulated blood. She’s had an amazing time, and she’s ready to come to Seoul, from what I know. And like Brianna, Laura is overjoyed by the opportunity of seeing what Korea really is like. She tells me on a regular skype basis that her middle school girls are all obsessed with Korea. It makes sense to a large degree seeing as Korea is a major influence in Asian (and now European too) media and entertainment. Did you hear that Rain (비) was named the most influential person in Time magazine? Yeah, he’s Korean. That’s right, I somehow claim pride in that, now.

Once the visits stop, the vacation starts – I have a five-day vacation at the end of the month, which brings me up to my very last week of Korea-town. Gift shopping, packing, exploring for the last time, and non-stop relaxing. Ah – the time flies no matter what.

Coming at you once again from another angle: I have now, officially been writing this blog for more than a year. (What? When did that happen?!) And I thank each and every one of the people taking time to sit down and read my prose. I couldn’t be more flattered.

If you take a quick look, my first post was on July 1st and almost a year to the date ago today, I was writing about July 4th, just like I am today. The only difference? I was sitting in my home back in the woods of Upstate New York, and now I sit in a modern Korean coffee shop, sipping on an Americano, trying to finish my thoughts before a lunch date with a good friend. O! How the times move, change, evolve, develop! 

Last 4th I spent with good friends and family, cooking burgers and banana pudding from scratch. This July 4th my group of friends and I harnessed the power of potluck yet again, came together, talked about which house we’d be in while attending Hogwarts (a tie between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw), drank chai tea and thought about things we missed. Open spaces, driving on open roads, eve’s dropping, talking with your neighbor, real Italian food, porches, bonfires, cookouts, lake houses all came to mind.

But what we found comfort in, amongst our nostalgia, was the company, the fact that we were sitting on an apartment floor, talking about the past and future, enjoying the present, and the food that filled the table. Broccoli pasta salad, Soba noodle salad, hummus, cucumbers, carrots, cheese and apples, crackers, corn bread, mashed potatoes, roasted spicy potatoes, blueberry-strawberry muffins, short cake, and cucumber-corn-zucchini-tomato salad all covered the available surface space on the table built for three. We noshed and chatted and ate some more until we were overly full and felt truly American. The next day, we’d meet again to shoot fireworks into the Han river that runs through the middle of Seoul (just as the Thames through London, and the Seine through Paris), and sing happy birthday to America one to many times. Also, the song that goes “You’re a grand ol’ flag, You’re a high flyin’ flag…

To the potluck, I brought along the shortcake, cucumber salad, and roasted spicy potatoes. I also made two apricot crisps, but they never made it to the potluck… I wonder why! Maybe because it was sweet, tart, chalked full of cloves, cardamom, and tasted so good after my morning run…

One more thing, since I’ve given myself the right to ramble: Read Eating Animals by J. Safran Foer. It’s amazing, inspiring, and jam-packed with good, philosophical information about America’s meat industry. If you don’t want to know, read Dance Dance Dance by H. Murakami – outstanding.

For today, we draw to a close. Happy birthday, 20something meals. Happy birthday America – I’ll see you soon enough. I welcome future collaborations with an amazing friend and outstanding blogger!  And I welcome Brianna to Korea! Let the exploration begin!

Roasted Spicy Potatoes

5-8 Potatoes (I used something similar to New Potatoes, but any will work)

Salt

Pepper

Cumin

Cayenne

Garlic

Oil

Chop the potatoes into “steak fries,” and drizzle oil over top (I used olive). Coat thoroughly with the salt, pepper, cumin, and cayenne (to taste, folks). Smash some garlic, and throw it (and the potatoes) onto a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees and bake for about 10 minutes on each side. Longer, if you like them crispier. Serve with something to drink, but of course.

Curried (Zucchini Salad) Lunch

Waking up at six every morning to: run, drink coffee, catch up on emails, wash the dishes from the night before, shower, and dress for work: is not the most conducive time for cooking a good lunch to take into work. But just before going to bed, against all logic, is.

Last night I felt a surge of energy and a touch of inspiration, walked into my kitchen, and started to cook lunch at 10pm. I had just finished reading the Minimalist’s farewell article on New York Times, and tried to evince a sense of minimalism and genius. I don’t know if I hit the mark, but I did make a quick and tasty treat that fit pleasantly into my Tupperware container.

A Curried Lunch:

One healthy serving of mixed greens

Half-a zucchini cut into quarters

One Handful of bean sprouts, lightly chopped

One (or two) Korean sweet potato

Oil

Diced garlic

Salt

Pepper

Curry Powder

Coriander Powder

Ginger Powder

Cinnamon

Tupperware

 

Bring water to a boil, and place the sweet potatoes in and let boil for about ten to fifteen minutes (depending on size)

While the sweet potato(es) is (are) cooking, place oil into a pan over medium-high heat. Place diced garlic in, and sauté until slightly brown. Add in salt, pepper, and quartered zucchini. Let cook for two minutes, then add in lightly chopped bean sprouts. Add a dash of water, along with Curry, Coriander, Ginger, and Cinnamon in a 3:2:1:1 ratio.

By this time, the sweet potatoes should be finished. Take them out, and place on a chopping block. Peel, and slice into disks about one quarter inch thick. Then into quarters.

Place the zucchini-bean sprout collage into one Tupperware, and let sit over-night.

Place sweet potatoes in a dust-storm of cinnamon, and let sit over night.

Sleep

In the morning, toss all of it together, along with the healthy serving of mixed greens.

Make your co-workers envious.

 

Breakfast Made At Night; Lunch In A Hurry

Although the holiday season has passed, and now we all are revealing in the year that started out as a giant binary joke (see: 01.01.11), I still feel like I’ve been running around with a purpose. From weekends filled with new found adventures, to keeping dinner plan promises, to planning my next month, it has been all-in-all hectic. I’ve made my best efforts to relax, take a few deep breaths, and coincidentally slow my life down a bit, but I haven’t been able to record those precious moments of inner peace (see: I am a neo-hippy, if that has been lost in the posts in between now and then).

And despite my best efforts to fully describe all that a 20-something can do in the culinary and travel world,  this little ditty might be a bit short. Nonetheless, I have two inspired culinary moments that I needed to share on behalf of 20-somethings  everywhere. The first is a breakfast that I made at night. Last night, to be exact.

 

Coming home from a long day at work, I lusted for nothing other than a fiction podcast, my yoga mat, and some banana bread. Luckily all three were at my disposal. I had been neglecting the first two for some time now, and needed to sweep the tangible and proverbial dust off my refuges. The latter – the bananas – were a recent find on the soon-to-be-trashed section of the grocery store. Browning, squishy, and perfect for banana bread.

My only hang-up was the lack of toaster. See, my toaster oven is not actually my own. Rather, it’s on a semi-loan based program where I borrow it from a good friend here, and in return I bring some of the fruits of my labor to her the following day. Unfortunately, she required her own toaster oven a weekend ago, so I was left with banana bread batter – maxed out with four bananas – and no baking device. So what do I take to? The stove top. There’s no hint of sarcasm here, dear reader, my backcountry culinary tricks made their way to my Seoul-based apartment. Sitting over extremely low heat, covered with a larger pan, this bread was cooking surprisingly evenly. Every five minutes or so, I would flip the bread to make sure the outsides cooked to a crisp crust while the insides stayed nice and gooey.  All of this was soundtracked by Don DeLillo’s short story “Baader-Meinhof.”

What came of the experiment was what normally happens to my banana breads: it was gooey, crispy crusted, dense, and amazingly delicious. I guess there are other descriptive words to articulately tell you what it was like, or I could say: The bread is nearly gone, and it’s been only one day. I recommend this banana bread giant pancake to any in need of a baked good in a country without an oven.

The other culinary breakthrough comes at you, again, straight off that beloved shelf in the grocery store where the produce is on reduce because it’s about to kick the bucket. This time, I give you lettuce, green onions, and jalapeno peppers.

This dish was a quick-witted flick of the wrist. I had lettuce I needed to eat, and produce I needed to cook, so I thought back to the summer days when I’d grill something up, and throw it right on a bed of lettuce to have the two words combine in some freakishly healthy and savory dish. And yet again, I sat at my desk today on lunch break, scarfing down this Korean-inspired salad.

See: sautéed onions, garlic, salt, pepper, crisp green onions, baby bok choy, and jalapenos all simmered with red pepper strands.

See: a bed of fresh lettuce

See: a gochujan dressing, whipped up fresh with extra pepper.

See:

 

The holidays will slow down soon enough. And when they do, boy do I have some meals to tell you. Think wintery drinks. Think sweet coated mornings. Think hot hands and cold noses. Get ready, 2011.