Monday, November 30, 2009

Girl Crushes

It must have been that ugly plaid skirt that sold me, because I always wanted to attend a private girl’s school. It all added up for me. The hideous uniform. The school song. The field hockey team, whatever that was. And, best of all, girl crushes.

I did the next best thing to attending one of those schools, which was to teach at a couple of these fine establishments right when I got out of college. Not only did I observe girl crushes firsthand, but I was the recipient of a couple especially ardent ones myself. You’ve just never been appreciated until a 14-year-old brings you a bouquet of illegal lilacs, swiped from the garden behind the convent.

It might have been caused by the sad lack of plaid in my own grownup wardrobe, but I was on the wrinkly side of 30 by the time I finally developed my first girl crush. But, man, I did fall hard. Having just moved to town and knowing no one, I took up a coworker on her offer to join a book club. I’d lived in blue collar towns like St. Louis and Detroit before then, and I was unacquainted with the whole book club fever that had gripped my little corner of Southwest Minneapolis at the time: the earnest liberal arts majors, the sensible haircuts, the dangling, free-range earrings. We read endless perimenopausal cheer-inducers about oppressed indigenous peoples and abused childhoods. And, in between bites from the requisite all-beige menu (Bill O’ Fare For Tonight’s Meeting: Hummus, Tablouleh AND Couscous), I met HER.

Cindy was a perfect girl crush recipient – tall, thin, dressed in hemp, but with just enough lip gloss to avoid seeming too butch. She had, of course, a perfect husband, and the perfect number of children – the of-course-I-know-when-to-stop two, one boy and one girl. Since I was new in town, her local lore seemed especially brilliant to me, with gentle suggestions about grocery stores and orthodontists and funky little boutiques. I hadn’t realized how often I was quoting her on a daily basis until my husband asked one night, “What do you want for dinner? Or wait, do you want to call Cindy first and see what she thinks?” He was just jealous. Even her closest friends have admitted to me that, after years of knowing her, she still seemed perfect to them, too.

My next girl crush happened just this summer. Unlike my adoration of the Blessed Cindy, this one was more equipment-based than fine-quality-worshiping. A friend of a friend, Erikka had tagged along to a soup swap and wowed everyone with her Shabby Chic mason jar presentation. She stayed late and laughed wryly at the hubhub her humble packaging had engendered. “I mean, it’s not like they were actually canned,” she chuckled. I froze. “You know how to can? Will you teach me?” “Sure,” she said.

She was true to her word (of course; she’s my crush). One Sunday this August, she hosted me and my pal at her house for a canning party. Is that so Little House on the Prairie or what? As soon as I got there, I began to worship her equipment. She had jar lifters. She had lid magnets. She not only gave me wine and cheese and let me read her cookbooks, but she sent me home with a jar of apple butter She Had Made Herself. Apple Butter! She was my own personal Williams-Sonoma, and I didn’t try to hide my feelings. “Erikka’s tongs have a clip so they don’t fly open in the drawer,” I was heard to sigh. “Erikka makes the best rosemary foccacia, and she grows her own rosemary.”

Now that I’ve gotten two crushes under my belt, I seem to be building up steam. My newest obsession is with two-girls-at-once, and, even better, I’ve never met either of them. But after reading their cookbook, Forking Fantastic! Put the Party Back in Dinner Party, I know that I would be best friends at once with Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds. One was a cook with a Master's in Arabic literature. One was a waitress at high-end NYC spots. They cook dinner on Sunday nights in Astoria for an Underground Supper Club, allowing 20 people in and asking for donations. Their approach is sassy and fun. It's as much as memoir and life philosophy as a cookbook. I don’t think Martha Stewart ever said, for example, “like pot luck, but for your ass.”  Also, they bring brisk slap of reality to the gauzy picture I usually paint myself when imagining a dinner party, describing "The Hour of Self-Loathing" before the guests arrive, which, they are pleased to point out, has been reduced to the "Half Hour of Self-Loathing."

And, while Cindy and Erikka represent ideals of goodness and gadget mastery I will never achieve, these chicks hit close to home. Their insistence on inviting too many people, making too much food, drinking too much wine and taking on way too many involved cooking projects reminds me of .... well, let's just say someone very close to me and leave it at that. “Get in Over Your Head,” an actual chapter title in their book, represents, for them, a life philosophy, not a one-time mistake. They not only think it’s a good idea to build your own spit for a whole-lamb-roasting or to commit to preparing fried chicken for sixty people, but they do this sort of thing on a weekly basis.

Now that I think about it, Get in Over Your Head is about as good a life motto as I can muster these days, so I’m putting on my plaid skirt and getting down to it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Party Of 100 For Dinner … Do You Have A Booth? Quantity Cooking Gets Real

We arrive in the church parking lot at 1 pm on Sunday. There’s the sensible Subaru. Here comes the snappy Mini. The bicyclist rolls in locks up. I arrive in my polka-dotted, dolled-up VW, sending, I am sure, this subtle statement: “Someone get this woman’s meds adjusted – stat!”

From our hatchbacks and our trunks, we pull out giant cans of tomatoes, loaf after loaf of bread, bags loaded with lettuce, parsley and basil.

It is time for the annual volleyball banquet, and I have volunteered to help cook dinner for 100 people

Since I’m often accused of creating every meal as if 100 people might show up and require instant feeding, it seemed like a logical leap for me to actually try cooking for a century of plates. But even for me, the woman who never buys just one of everything when a dozen will do, the quantities seem astounding. Twenty-five pounds of chicken breasts, for example, form a mountainous slab that begins to suggest that a toddler might be buried in there somewhere. Fifteen heads of romaine lettuce fill up the lane at the Cub, causing the checker to shoot me several of the furtive glances common to a Minnesotan in the late stages of intense and inexpressible curiosity. “The Romaine Lettuce Diet,” I volunteer. “I’ve already lost 250 pounds and just have 30 more to go.”

As we unpack on the warm afternoon, we introduce ourselves. As parents of the players on three school teams, we know each other by sight or by previous committee, but this is the first time we have ever cooked together before. It’s not exactly an Ice Storm / Key-Switching / Orgy in the Suburbs sort of moment, but locking yourself in an industrial kitchen for five hours with relative strangers, focused on the goal of producing something edible and above-the-ordinary enough to be considered celebratory – well, it’s an intimate activity and there’s no getting around that.

It turns out, I realize as the chatter begins, that all of us fall into the range of committed, but nonprofessional, cooks. Our depth of experience, travel and skill reveals itself through anecdote, technique and equipment brought from home. Our chairperson has brought his own knives. I begin to slice an onion with his Wusthof and instantly curse the veritable butter-knives with which I chop at home, then begin to wonder if I could smuggle these sharp little numbers out in my jeans.

The shopping and planning that has gone into this feast is impressive, lost only, I am sure, on the daughters who will be eating it in a few hours. Someone has uncovered the best place to get gelato, after several grueling taste tastes around town, and he has scored several pans. Another reveals the location of a hole-in-the-wall Italian deli, where the same canned goods have been on the shelves since Mussolini was in power, but which creates delectable cannolis in the back kitchen. He’s filling them himself. Of course. Another Dad has made a special order of pancetta and hustles out to pick it up. I note that we have a lot of bacon and suggest we just use that as a cheap substitute, and he struggles valiantly with the horror he might feel if I had suggested that perhaps a pan-fried poodle would be a nice touch in the Marsala sauce. Bacon? As if. “That’s okay,” he murmurs. “It’ll just take me a minute and I know we’ll all appreciate the authenticity.”

Amazingly, we all manage to suppress our opinions, or to state them in highly diplomatic ways. “These are the chopped onions for the marinara sauce,” I say, and I detect just the slightest wince from our chairperson as he asks, kindly and dadlike, “But you’re going to cut them up into a finer dice, right?” Right.

There are many demarcations among avid home cooks, and I suppose chopping is the first. I have had previous encounters with members of that group who chops everything into perfectly measured, perfectly tiny bits. “I hate when I go to a restaurant and things are cut so big,” our chairperson says. “I think, why did I bother to spend money for this?” Hearing that statement, I request, and receive, specific direction from him on the desired size of pancetta cubes, and, even then, as he stops to observe them frying in the skillet, he sighs and says, “I told you to cut them too big, I think. Someone will bite into a big hunk and be upset.” He is followed at stove, seconds later, by someone who opines, “I hope that’s not diced too small. You really loose the integrity of the flavor if it gets all dissolved.” I, like Switzerland, remain neutral, even though if I had a Chinese name it would be Rough Chop. Not a lot of finesse in my home operation, just plenty of volume.

The afternoon wears on and the piles of ingredients begin to become prepared dishes. I run out to the bathroom and as I enter the space again, I’m engaged by the powerful smell of baking brownies, handfuls of garlic and mountains of fresh herbs. Aaaah.

Eventually, the girls start to arrive, some of them stiff-legged in high heels, continually pausing to hoist up the strapless dresses that are bedeviling them, some in comfy jeans and ponytails. We allow the girls to serve themselves first and I see plates stacked with meatballs, pasta, salad. I wonder if they know that one Dad made all the croutons for that salad himself, or that he fretted and fussed to ensure that all evidence of anchovy was mashed out of existence, lest it upset some delicate high school princess. No, they don’t know, nor, I suppose, should they care. It’s just us cooks back here, happy at work. As I leave early, on my way home to make dinner for the non-athletic daughter, I say to the other five, “I know this sounds strange, but I had more fun today than I’ve had in a long time.” They nod. They understand. And they each know, in their hearts, that I don’t understand the first thing about how to dice pancetta.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pimp My Soup (and Other Tales from my Recent Soup Swap)

Of course there’s a National Soup Swap Day. In a country where we celebrate National Peanut Butter & Jelly Day (April 2) and National Sugar Cookie Day (July 9), it only stands to reason that humble old soup, that overlooked meal in a bowl, would finally get its due. Don’t feel too badly if you missed National Soup Swap Day on January 24. It’s always a good time to get in on the semi-liquid action with a swap of your own.

But first, some history. The concept of the soup swap was cooked up in the late 1990s by Seattle resident Knox Gardner, who was weary of endless leftovers from his big batches of soup. The concept gained traction nationwide with the addition of a Web site [] in 2006, and has been receiving more media attention of late, usually tied to those “People Coping in Tough Economic Times” stories.

Now the movement has reached the Twin Cities, and, true to form, it’s being stretched into a unique Upper Midwestern shape with vintage family recipes, ethnic variations and lots of unforgettable stories. As with many things in this area, soup swappers here start with a bit more reticence, but they quickly pick up steam and enter a competitive zone aimed at making the most-chosen soups and picking the best ones for themselves.

The concept of the swap is simple: make, label and freeze six quarts of soup. Invite friends -- at least 6 (so there’s enough variety) but no more than 15 (otherwise it will take too long). Everyone shows up with their six 1-quart containers of labeled soup and some copies of their recipe, and leaves with six new soups, new recipes, and a stockpile of meals for the weeks ahead. Logistically, it works best to draw numbers randomly for “telling and picking” order.

The highlight of the swap is not, surprisingly, the soup itself, but the stories. Based on the number picked from the hat (or soup bowl), each person has a chance to “sell” his or her particular soup. This “pimp my soup” section of the evening can careen wildly from bawdy to sentimental to completely persuasive.

At a recent swap I hosted, I broke most of the rules and still managed to have a great time. I broke the attendance limit rule in a pretty serious way, since I kept saying yes to people who wanted to bring a friend or sign on late. We had 27 soup swappers gathered in my modest living room on a cold Friday night. It was loud, chaotic, cramped and lots of fun. The stories included a piece of short fiction that someone wrote about her immigrant family’s posole. Someone else related a touching story about being the only grandchild who liked to cook with Grandma, who lived on the Iron Range, and how now, years later, she’s the only one who can hand down the famous Granny Vegetable Soup recipe to the family. A storyteller delighted the crowd with an entirely fictional tale of meeting her eventual husband in Jamaica and snagging him only because he wanted to eat more of her Jamaican Sweet Potato Soup. It’s rare that two people bring the same variety, but this night, there was a battling duo of Minnesota-grown-beet Borscht makers extolling the superfood qualities of their dish, with much wine-fueled discussion on how likely beets are to make you pee pink. And not everyone slaves over a stove, either. One participant called her entry, “My kid had a concert at school last night soup,” and brought six quarts of Byerly’s Tomato Basil. Someone else had six brown paper bags, each complete with the fixings for a do-it-yourself “Bloody Mary Soup.”

A fun extra touch is to have judges, either the hosts or whatever stray kids have been carted along by parents who couldn’t get a sitter. At my recent swap, prizes included a candle for most romantic soup (that steamy sweet potato story), a bottle of Zout for messiest soup (Aunt Mimi’s Chili) and a 2009 calendar (with two entirely usable months left!) for last-picked soup (one of the Borschts). There was also a Consistency Award for a friend who has been to every one of the four swaps I’ve held so far – a 1947 edition of Women’s Home Companion Cookbook, bought for 25 cents at a garage sale and larded throughout with recipe cards, written in old lady handwriting. My friend was thrilled.

It sounds simple, but it makes people so happy, perhaps because there is something about the nature of soup and soup-making that elevates the experience to a higher level. A sandwich swap or a salad swap wouldn’t work for reasons that are both practical and more intangible. You can’t lose a salad in the back of the freezer and find it six months later like a belated Christmas present. Also, there’s an in-the-moment quality surrounding the time it takes to prepare soup, and deep comfort in sharing it with someone else. The chopping, the stock-making, the simmering – it’s a labor-intensive process. There is time to quietly observe the process on the stove, and think of someone who could really use a nice, warm bowl of soup. The labor, with its attendant memories and feelings of connectedness, translates into “I love you” for most of us, even the ones who can barely rustle up a can of Progresso on a chilly night.

The variations for the swap are endless, with the possibilities of themed events for family recipes, ethnic, low-fat, vegetarian. Another great riff on the national theme also has a distinctly Minnesotan appeal, since we always lead the nation in charitable works. You can add a “Bring a 7th Quart” effort for friends who are ill and would appreciate ready-to-eat meals. My spring swap featured a “give a seventh” effort for a friend who has been battling ovarian cancer and recently finished a course of chemotherapy. With an appetite that’s slowly returning, she was thrilled to receive 17 quarts of soup. She told me, “It’s like the fun of shopping, but in my own kitchen. I just open the freezer door and see what I’ll treat myself to next!”

Still, as much as everyone loves to eat it, there are soup-phobic cooks among us. It’s the ultimate four-letter word for someone who feels unsure in the kitchen. In reality, there is nothing easier than soup. A little attention, a bit of time, and everyone thinks you’re a genius. What follows is a fail-safe recipe for the starting point of good soup – good stock. When you start with homemade stock, you can never go wrong. And once you’ve got that mastered, you’re more than ready to host a swap of your own.

Recipe for “Good Bones” Chicken Stock

Step One: For this, you need two things – freezer space and discipline. Every time you make chicken or turkey – and I’m assuming it’s on your menu more than beef tenderloin these days – you have to save all the bones. No exceptions. That’s where the discipline comes in. Save the icky necks when you first take the chicken out of its plastic, and save the cooked bones afterwards. Save the carcass of the Thanksgiving turkey, assuming the cat doesn’t climb on the counter and slobber all over it. Or maybe even then. All these bits are put in freezer bags, and when you have a couple big bags full, you’re ready to make stock.

Step Two: Take the bags from the freezer, dump all the bones into a big pot, and cover with cold water. If you want, you can add bay leaves, quartered onions, whole peeled garlic cloves, carrots and/or celery. You can impart an Asian flavor with slivers of ginger and garlic, or perhaps a splash of soy sauce or sesame oil. Or, you can be lazy and add nothing. Just cook the bones on high heat until boiling, and then reduce to a simmer. The longer this stuff simmers, the better, so put the stock on the stove in the morning, and let it cook until dinnertime. Then, turn off the stove and let it cool down a bit.

Step Three: Have someone help you. Really, this job is too gross and greasy for any one mortal. Put a big bowl in the sink, and get out your largest strainer or colander. Person One holds the strainer. Person Two pours the liquid from the pot, through the strainer and into the bowl. Do this with the bowl in the sink, because it splashes everywhere and it’s easier to pour down.

Step Four. Person Two is now holding a pot full of very repulsive-looking bones. Don’t think about this, just keep moving. Person One holds a sturdy garbage bag open and Person Two drops in all the bones. Because Person One’s job was pretty much of a cakewalk in Step One, that person must be the one to carry the drippy, icky bone bag outside to the garbage can. Really, outside. Really, now. Don’t leave the bag in your house for any longer than you have to. Pets will go nuts and the kitchen will stink.

Step Five: Cover the bowl of stock and, when it cools a bit, chill it overnight. When you open the refrigerator door in the morning, it will look like a tan 1970s version of two-layer Jello. The yellowish part on top is chicken fat, and your next job is to scrape all of that off and discard it. If you have an empty ice cream carton or similar container to scoop it into, that’s great, because this stuff is very greasy.

Step Six: Now you have two choices. Use your creation right away in any recipe that calls for chicken stock, or freeze it for later in gallon Ziploc bags that store flat in the freezer. Just be careful, as you’re scooping out the stock from the bowl, to leave any gritty or bad-looking bits at the very bottom and wash those down the sink. The stock you use should all be golden and clear, a ready palette for all the colors and flavors your creative cooking genius has in mind.