9. C’s Banana-Chocolate Bread Pudding

C and I spent the most time together last year when she drove me to the airport; I wished, both then and now, that fortune had given us more time together because she’s one of the funniest people I know. She has a realistic but optimistic view of academics as a career, which I find so refreshing; she gets involved and lends a hand, and just generally seems to pull her weight all over the department. It made me happy that she could make it to the potluck.

When I saw her bread pudding, despite my interest in all the other foods at the dinner party, I wanted to just bury my face in it: the appeal of sticky, sweet, fruity bread was irresistible. I hoped it hadn’t been too difficult to make, since bread pudding is one of many things I’ve never made.

C cited that many recipes inform her decisions, but that this one was her most inspirational: http://tastingspoons.com/archives/6004

She also pointed out that stale bread is far from necessary; she buys hers fresh and loves the way it turns out. C’s attitude, excellently breezy for this new cook, reflects a good point: “It’s got chocolate chips in it – what could go wrong?”

 

I’ll also add that it’s beautiful: shiny and textured, dappled and aromatic.  Will be introducing this recipe to my tummy again soon.breadpuddingyes

 

8. J’s Baked Ziti

(I still have many dinner party entries to go, but today’s is going to be a throwback to before the party, when I tried out my friend J’s recipe for baked ziti).

I volunteer at a very small food pantry – the pantry is open two nights a month, and serves between 50 and 60 families – 75 to 100 near the holidays. The area where I live isn’t population dense, so given the restrictions that low income puts on people’s mobility, it makes sense that small food pantries should be the norm: walking or bus distance to the places where people need them.

The two gentlemen who run the pantry are total hams; goofiest folks I’ve ever seen run a non-profit organization. They are gentle and funny, quick with a joke and a kind word. One of them, J, came up to me waving his hands yesterday. “(Husband) told me about your learning to cook thing! I mean, not that you don’t know how to cook, just you know, trying the new things! I’ve got a recipe for you.”

J’s recipe was to long, complicated recipes what someone telling you directions to the closest gas station is to a long road trip map from Mapquest. He told it to me in only a few breaths: “First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”

There were so many holes in the recipe (how much pasta? How much sauce? Things come in different sizes, you know… and what temperature for the oven?) but I realized that in the spirit of how easy he claimed his recipe was, I ought to take a chill pill. After all, I’ve developed an infamous habit of playing fast and loose with the recipes given to me – here was one that I could follow TO THE LETTER and still have considerable leeway. As I stood there listening, I ticked off the 3 ingredients – sauce, pasta, cheese – and knew that I could make it immediately.

This, I now realize, is the real thing I love about the project: when someone finds out, and raves about a recipe they’ve done, I get to go home and try it, and come back with pictures and let them tell me how I did, or what I can try to make it better. Food is ultimately about conversation. I may be a shoddy and lazy cook, but I love talking. I feel more alive having a serious chat with someone than I do doing any of the cliff diving, mud wrestling kinds of adventure that Husband finds invigorating. I see it as a bit of magic: what else can you do for a few hours and have a lifelong friend afterwards? It’s hit-or-miss, to be sure, as with many things, but I live in pursuit of that wonderful conversation.

And food is helping me make my inroads in a new place – we’ve volunteered at the food pantry a handful of times, but other than the fact that we were 30 years younger than the next youngest volunteers, we weren’t really “befriended” by that many folks. Everyone was nice and cordial, but until they saw that we weren’t just a new batch of students trying to get our service hours in, and we didn’t have our own kids so we were pretty freed up in the evenings, they didn’t start to warm to us fully. However, in the past few open nights, it’s been a delight to have folks recognize us: my commute makes me late every time, so I’ve been dubbed “the Queen,” because I think I can just waltz in whenever I want.

This recipe, which could be made mostly with ingredients available in the shelves of the food pantry, is my chance to greet those who call me the Queen with a simple if silly story of making the dish. I will be able to have Husband vouch for how such a simple dish to make can be such a pleasure to eat.

I made this dish after we went to the gym (I know! So responsible.) and I knew we were going to like it because we were extremely hungry. While very simple in its flavoring, it feels hearty and the fact that I can indeed eat a pasta dish without any boiling of water filled me with joy.

 

J’s Baked Ziti

“First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”

7. N’s Lasagna Cupcakes

N is one of the most organized and thought-out people I know. When she and I run into each other, it’s usually at a cool lecture or movie screening, because she has a lot of similar interests. We end up talking about how to save time and how to make good study habits, and I love that economy of thought: I leave every interaction with her aspiring to new levels of impact and usefulness.

So it is no surprise that her contribution to the potluck would be so practical: parties are best handled with finger food, and lasagna is delicious, so put them together and you get N’s lasagna cupcakes (technically, they belong to food blogger but N introduced me to them; long live the giant chain of recipe borrowers!). Using wonton wrappers to encapsulate small servings of lasagna ingredients, N made stacks of these little delights, with their slightly crispy shells and their savory sausage centers. I squirreled away two of them and found that after a couple of days in the fridge the wonton wrapper took on an even more noodle-like consistency, but still didn’t fall apart. It’s the almost-not-messy way to eat pasta! I say almost because I am an overachiever in the messiness department.

N does a lot of her own blogging and spearheads a cookbook club, so I expect to be taking cooking advice (and cooking photography advice!) from her for a long time yet.

Here is the recipe! http://www.tablespoon.com/recipes/lasagna-cupcakes/973c5603-c1e4-4790-9e6a-aef378332ef2

Eating Local, and Preparations

I’ve been reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s one-year challenge (I am clearly a fan of the one-year challenge…) to eat things grown close to her is so compelling. As I listened on the way to the grocery store before my dinner party last weekend, I longed for April, when our local farmer’s market would fill up again and I would start purchasing squashes and beans, bundles of green onions, piles of peppers, and anything else I could gather from people who lived close to me.

It was also a bit of a wake-up call as for my lazy shopping habits: I took care to bring my durable shopping bags into the store (from reading my flagrant substitutions in recipes, you can imagine I forget these often), but I also grabbed peppers and kale without putting them in bags, rather just setting them atop one of my own bags… I’m gonna clean them anyway. It’s hardly virtue incarnate, but as Kingsolver smartly points out, it’s everyone making small changes that can change an industry.

That day Husband was out and about, helping a relative to move to a new apartment, so I was alone with the house and the kitchen. I put on my audiobook and threw together the pork chops and the triple peanut butter cookies – the pork chops were dreamy easy and the cookies made me feel like, with sunshine and this balmy 50 degree day, I could be an actual cook. I gathered the ingredients for the farro salad I’d found (somehow, there just weren’t enough vegetables coming to my party, so I needed something to round it out) and for a quiche that I planned to whip up last minute if anyone extra showed up and it felt like there was going to be too little food.

While the pork chops slowly turned golden in the crockpot and the cookie cooled and hardened on the counter, I tidied. I’ve admitted my lack of penchant for cooking, but I’m proud to say that the house is tidy, there are enough seats for everyone (admittedly not at the table itself, but in the living room is okay, right?), two loads of laundry will soon be done and folded, and with all this food, my house is going to smell divine. Just in case, I took a turn working on the hardwood with some orange oil and beeswax conditioning oil; I do it less like a chore and more like penance, a prayer to the hardwood gods to keep the house from falling down around us. I opened a window for a time and put the sad, shrivelly amaryllis into it to hopefully soak up some light and bust out a bloom for us.

I’m learning how to love the preparation for things, I think: I rarely love those stages, but such a pretty day with so many satisfying activities and such anticipation… it made things worthwhile.

The Heart of Dinner Parties

I’m an awkward person, I think, at parties – this wasn’t always true, but lately with life mostly revolving around getting to and from work and not letting my Husband starve to death (he’s skinny as a rail, so it’s ever-impending), there has been less real party-style socializing. So I was really happy when so many people – 7! – decided to come to my house and eat.

I picked menu items that I felt would fill out different spaces in the menu, just in case everyone aimed toward a particular type of food – I started with a fresh farro salad with kale, sweet potatoes, and onions that was lemony and refreshing. I went with both a veggie main dish – quiche with roasted tomatoes and spinach – and a savory one – melt-off-the-bone mushroom parmesan pork chops from the Crock-Pot. Finally, because I received TONS of dessert recipes from the wedding and am always scared to leave sweets sitting around the house, I whipped up the appetizing Triple Peanut Butter Cookies that everyone was raving about.

Only one of the seven folks who came had seen the house before, so part of the fun when folks arrived was walking them around and listening to the “ooh you don’t live in an apartment anymore!” which is, after all, a very nice feeling. It was extra nice because I spent my Saturday, in between cooking, cleaning this place to within an inch of its life. My lovely friend T commented that the place was “very clean” and I basked in the glow of such a statement – no one applies that statement to me or things I touch, ever.

The conversation turned to familiar topics – they all are still studying at the school I just finished my degree at last year, so I got filled in on who was teaching what classes, and what had been a ridiculous amount of work and what had been incredibly rewarding. I bugged friends about their trips home for the holidays, and their upcoming plans, and I put in a bid for them to move closer to me, rather than living walking distance to school. All the normal things. Husband took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to make a fire out back in the firepit, burning crispy pieces of our christmas tree; the branches made loud crackling sounds and flared alarmingly. He, as one might expect, had so much fun.

While I always wonder if people are comfortable, warm, at home in my home, I also am realizing that the home itself can help with that. The bright colors on our walls, the small kitchen where we still find a spot for everyone’s dishes, all were perfect for creating the potluck atmosphere where even first time guests knew their way around.

Also, as expected, the food was amazing. In addition to my dishes, there was root beer chicken (the sweetness soaked into the meat and made it tender), jalapeno turkey bacon cheese dip (perfect noshing while waiting for everyone to arrive), lasagna cupcakes (perfectly designed to be portable in a party setting, and super savory with sausage and cheeses), mashed potatoes (I don’t know what he did to make them so buttery, but I’m not sure I want to know – they were too good that way), with banana-chocolate bread pudding and mini apple pies for dessert.

I ate some of everything, and thought a lot about all the fancy restaurants where the chefs I’ve been reading about this month work. They have “tasting menus,” 5 or 8 or 10 tiny dishes they serve for hundreds of dollars, all carefully designed and decorated. This food took over the entire dining room table, and everyone’s forks and plates were mismatched, and we crowded into the living room to eat and chat, but it was the best tasting menu I could imagine: most of the foods edged toward the rich and savory, but you could have just a small bit of each and enjoy all the flavors, from the warm earthy farro to the crisp wonton wrappers holding the lasagna; from the soupy mushroom cream sauce over the pork chops to the crunch of the peanut butter candy in the cookies. All was food that you wouldn’t want to eat every day in such quantities, but that in the moment you wanted to eat all night long.

There were many things left over, so I busted out some bargain christmas-themed plastic containers and bugged everyone to load up with at least one more meal’s worth before they left – like the feeding of the 5000, we still had our own packages and plates to load into the fridge when everyone went home.

It was delightful, in short. I intend to do it again. Any tips from veteran potluck hosts for how I could do better next time??