How food, and sitting down to eat, is such a unifying experience

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My mother is making me crazy. They are the first to arrive tomorrow for a whirlwind week of family and holiday insanity. Her arrival has been preceded by three phone calls. The first required discussing my sister-in-law’s gift and how she did not understand why the Lululemon sweatshirt that I recommended was any different than the sweater she picked out. Ok. Then buy the sweater. She ultimately chose neither.

The second was a brief call during my workday because she had an emergency. Turns out that the emergency was that her best friend from law school needed a stuffing recipe. I deemed this an issue that could be addressed the following day (a Saturday) and told her so. Follow up emails on the matter were received.

The third call, meant to simply verify airport pick up plans, turned into a conversation about how she now intended to make chocolate mousse cake upon her arrival. I tried to explain that I’d already spent the better part of the weekend orchestrating the menu and grocery shopping. She replied that she knew her way to the store near our house and would go on her own. That’s about the point that I just put the phone down.

It’s a tale as old as time. Kids are driven bananas by their mothers. And mothers are exasperated by their kids’ lack of patience.

Surely my mother's favorite Christmas with me, before I could talk.

Surely my mother’s favorite Christmas with me, before I could talk.

Thank goodness there’s food. Over food, everyone calms down. Traditions are remembered. Old stories told. Laughing usually dominates arguing.

Unlike meals, board games will bring out the worst in your family at the holidays. Look at my mother's sly look as she is about to go in for the kill.

Unlike meals, board games will bring out the worst in your family at the holidays. Look at my mother’s sly look as she is about to go in for the kill.

Whether with friends or family or even strangers, a meal can unify like few other activities. There’s a collective agreement on the process of a meal, plus, it naturally engenders conversation. With mouths full, you have a moment to think before you speak. With bellies full, you feel satiated – you’re not looking to fill any gaps, physically or emotionally.

Everyone brings a little something to a meal together. Whether it’s the food itself, or colorful commentary, or just some wisdom. You’re expected to contribute. And, you’re expected to respect the contributions too. And, you’re generally expected to have a good time – let loose, tell a joke, burp, have the extra glass of wine. A meal, most often, is joyous.

My family will need this in the next few days. And, likely, your family will too.

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Dancing on tables, aka how to feel the carefree abandon of 21 again

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As I write this, I am a bit under the weather. No great surprise. I’ve been on massive overdrive for multiple weeks on end. And, when you reach my delicate age, the universe likes to remind you that your body just can’t keep up the way it used to.

Some folks know that I deplore getting older. The whole thing just feels like one big shitty joke. It’s not even so much that you tire more easily, or that you don’t spring back as quickly. It’s that I feel like the window for adventure narrows a bit with each successive year.

Like most, I did not feel this same sense of wistfulness at 21 years old. This is partially due to the sheer volume of time that I spent drunk. But I was also living each second fully and with nearly complete abandon. I had no idea what was coming and, it turns out, that was a good thing.

You know how when people talk about the ultimate state of partying, they jokingly reference “dancing on tables”? I danced on tables. Not metaphorical tables. Real life, four legs, one flat surface tables; praying that they had enough structural integrity when my three friends climbed up there with me, especially when one is 6’4” and an easy 200 pounds.

It was the late 90s in Aix-en-Provence and the scene was the Eden Roc, a bistro by day, dance club by night. Most weekend nights, we’d show up around 10:30 or 11 pm, just when dinner service was wrapping up. We would hang out for a bit with our glasses of whatever and sway to the music. But, eventually, someone would consume one too many glasses of whatever and they’d move their personal dance party up to one of the tables. From there, it just lost all sense of daily decorum.

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Now, I’ve since been known to shake what my mama gave me on a Vegas bar and a New Orleans stage, but no memory is more wonderfully outrageous to me than the tables at the Eden Roc.

I think we all know that I’ll never be 21 again. In fact, I will probably never again dance on the tables in the South of France. But, I am far from done.

Just this past fall, I saw the sun come up over Bourbon Street. After a night of some reasonable debauchery, I was dragging home my two girlfriends at daybreak. (Note: These two just shy of 30-somethings whined the whole way that I was being a buzz kill, since a few clubs were still open. Um, no.) The year before,  I was pouring these same girls into a cab after closing down the bars in Louisville, following an epic wedding. It was nearly dawn.

At 38, I see many more days that start at 6 am than end at that hour. But I’ve still got about one per year left in the tank. I expect that, in the next few decades, it might be like one every few years. And that’s ok. The key is that is still happens. There’s still a light breeze coming through the window. The day it’s fully shut, I will surely suffocate.

Holiday party food that doesn’t take 10 hours to make

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Tis the season. For multitasking. As we speak, I am simultaneously making my grocery list for the holiday meals, ordering some last minute presents, chastising my cat for licking the gifts already under the tree (gross), blogging, and trying to figure out how to eat some food so as not to head off to my pasta-making class with an empty stomach and – at some point – freak out from hunger while rolling linguine.

Earlier this morning, I checked and replied to work and personal email, wrapped a few presents, cuddled with the same offending cat, and made an appointment to have my nails re-done, since all of the above have led to them being chipped and awful. Yesterday, my mom called me and said she hoped she wasn’t waking me. As though I had time for sleep.

I bet a few of you just read that and thought. Yes, that sounds pretty similar to my days right now. It’s such a cliché that the holidays are busy. But, damn. The holidays are busy.

That is, no doubt, what led to the requester of this post to ask for some ideas on party food that doesn’t take 10 hours to make. As well established previously, I am super lazy. I would rarely make something that required more than 30 minutes to make. So, she is in luck… I have a few recipes to share.

Pancetta Crisps With Goat Cheese and Pear – Ok, confession time. This is the single easiest thing I have ever made that people go absolutely bat-shit crazy for. It’s an instant hit and I’d highly recommend it.

Caramelized Onion, Gruyère, and Bacon Spread – Cheese and bacon on bread. You get the idea.

Potato-Gruyère Tartlets – This one is good on lots of fronts. 1) It’s potatoes on dough, which makes it carb-tastic! 2) It only requires a little gruyere, which is a perfect way to use up the leftover bits you have from the recipe above. 3) Puff pastry appears complicated, but it’s NOT! You buy it at the STORE! Anyone out there attempting to make their own puff pastry at this ridiculous time of year, I will slap your pretentious face.

Caramelized Onion Tartlets – You already have the puff pastry, make two kinds of little dealies to put out. Then it looks like you made a bunch of amazing stuff, when really you just repurposed some ingredients.

Scallops in Orange-Butter Sauce – Scallops and shrimp are the best possible things to serve to look fancy-pants but really aren’t. Both are incredibly simple to cook. If you want to ante-up the fancy-pants even more with this recipe, you can substitute bubbles for the white wine.

Saucy Asian Meatballs – Serving meatballs will make your dad happy because it’s traditional and meat-y and he’s barely recovered from you telling him you’re making a roast beef for Christmas dinner instead of turkey which is what your family has done since the dawn of time and you are messing with something that wasn’t broken in the first place. (True story.)

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So, when typing the above sentences… I made an edit. I originally wrote that I never cook anything that requires more than 30 minutes to make. Never say never.

My all time favorite holiday party dish is Grilled Camembert With Exotic Mushroom Hash. This dish is not especially complex, but it does require multiple steps and special equipment. For the record, it also allows you to light food on fire – for the win!!! Overall, it’s a bit of a pain in the ass. But, it is also divine. And, it will absolutely be on my holiday table this year.

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Food with Friends

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I met the sous-chef when I was 22… literally, the ink on my college degree was barely dry. Which means, I don’t have a ton of experience with blind dates. That’s a rite of passage that most folks in their 20s go through, that I simply never… passed.

What, in god’s name, does this have to do with food with friends? Lemme tell you. Move to a city of transplants and people are more than happy to set you up on blind dates with other friends that have just moved there.

Not having experienced the romantic side of this, I am conjecturing a bit, but I think it’s pretty much the same thing. There’s the pre-date nerves. Will we have enough to talk about? Will I recognize them when I get to the restaurant? There’s the first impressions. Wow, they’re taller than they look on Facebook. Oh, she’s awfully fashionable. There’s the sometimes awkward, sometimes seamless dinner conversation. We love all the same things! Um, I’ll ask a question about our mutual friend to move things along. Finally, there’s the assessment. That was so fun! It felt like we knew them forever. We are totally asking them out again.

The good news is that  – often – these blind friend dates (much like blind date-dates) happen over a meal. And food is an amazing equalizer. It gives you something to talk about. Have you been here? Oh, what did you eat? It gives you something to gush/commiserate over. Mine was delicious! Yours? Yeah, this was only ok. And it gives you a peek into how they manage relationships. We’ll pick up the tab. We insist! I had the cup of soup and the chicken, so I owe $27.50. A dinner together will teach you a lot about your new-found friends. And, if you happen to all be foodies, so much the better!

Just a few nights ago, the sous-chef and I met new friends. We were all connected by a dear pal in Boston. We courted for several weeks by email. Like most busy professionals, our crazy schedules delayed our actual get-together by several weeks. But, we could already see in our written correspondence that the possibilities were there.

We finally made it work over some soul food on a Sunday night. All new-ish to San Francisco, we chose a place that’s a bit of a local institution. The fried chicken was delicious. The laughter and conversation were better. The food did what food did… it created a platform for connection. Food is, ultimately, essential to the foundation of most relationships. What a remarkable thing.

Oh, and future plans were made to cook each other our favorite meals as soon as the holiday dust settles. Continuing to let food guide the path to creating more love and life in this world.

Tricks for make-ahead and slow cooker recipes for our busy lives

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Once and a while I’ll make a reference to a slow cooker recipe to some foodie and they will snarkily come back with, “oh, like ‘set it and forget it’?” As though your cooking cred just dropped through a sinkhole. Well, to everyone that’s ever said that, I say back, “screw you.” Slow cookers are AWESOME. I’ve had the same one for ten years and I’ve used it dozens and dozens of times.

Here’s why I like it. Slow cooker recipes are easy. As already established in this blog, I am lazy. Score one. Crock Pots make lots of food that does really well as leftovers (as do pretty much any slow cooked dish). Score two (especially if you don’t want to cook every night!). Lastly, you make your dinner the night before when you have a little time (maybe after you’ve finally stopped checking your email or your kids have gone to bed) and then you don’t have to do SHIT the next evening, when you’re tired and crazy and past-the-point-of-consolable because you ate a block of cheese and some Kit-Kats for lunch (not that this has ever happened to me, of course). Big score three.

This time of year is stellar for slow cookers. They’re perfect for making cozy, filling meals and they feed an army (otherwise known as the extended family that’s descending on your 900 sq. foot apartment for the holidays – oh, sorry, I was projecting there for a second).

One friend told me that she plans to cook a batch of chili in her Crock Pot and just keep it on low all Christmas day. That way, as random friends and family drop by, she always has something warm to serve them. Brilliant. I am totally stealing that. She also mentioned that it’s great for the 20-something cousins that show up hung over. Makes perfect sense to me.

So, if you’re freaking out over all of your cooking duties this hectic time of year – or, if you entire life is nothing but one continuous series of chaos and madness (see: my life), these recipes are just what you need.

Asian-style pulled pork

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Crock Pot Chili

Moroccan Meatballs and Spicy Tomato Sauce

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Peasant Stew (One of my all time favorites.)

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Vegetable and Chickpea Curry

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How farm to table has become generic and lost some of its charm

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You know how in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell talks about the Hush Puppy shoes and how a handful of NYC hipsters started wearing them when they were all but out of business and then they became a huge national fad?

Hush Puppies are now food. Um, wait. As in, the Hush Puppy shoe. Not the delicious fried ball of cornbread. Which is, and always had been, food.

What I mean is, food has jumped the trendy shark. And I kinda hate when things I love jump the trendy shark. I have a deep fondness for the weird, the odd, the unique. (Am I stating the obvious? I did just move to SF.) So when something goes from quirky to mainstream, it absolutely loses its charm – at least for me.

The requester of this post inquired specifically about “farm to table” food. What’s absolutely gorgeous farm to table is its authenticity. It feels like a wholesome, approachable experience. A nice old-fashion way of dining (for which you’ll lay down a mortgage payment for the privilege).

Farm to Table

You know where the food came from and you feel confident that it’s fresh and good for you. It may even be organic (but never assume, especially in a restaurant – they are notorious for offering a grey truth about the percent of what they serve that’s truly organic).

The meal is generally beautifully laid out on simple, distressed wood tables, decked with mason jars filled with lemonade and rustic country loaves with golden crusts. Don’t get me wrong; it is usually delicious. But it’s also pretty formulaic and it’s become a little… boring. I have to admit, I’m already seeking the next food fad – something that challenges me and is still low on the radar.

I still really enjoy farm to table, I’ve just become a lot more selective about which opportunities I pursue. We belong to a fabulous winery called Scribe, and they host a quarterly pick-up party. It’s got a lot of the elements that I just poo-poo’ed, but the thing is, it’s totally legit. If you show up on a random Wednesday, they’ll show you the same hospitality – it’s just how they live. When you go there, it just feels warm and casual and inclusive, like you’re part of the family. My demands for these experiences have become pretty strict, and Scribe delivers.

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

Scribe Pick-Up Party

I hope you find a farm to table experience that remains special and cool. And when you do, please let me know – I promise to keep the secret between us.

A play… maybe on Greek mythology

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1207: A Christmas Party Odyssey

Act I 

Scene 1

Snow gently blankets Mount ‘Ville, under a bright winter’s moon. Nestled in the Land of High rests a palatial enclave called for centuries after Antonius, god of cheap liquor and bad hookups.

On this fateful night, festive music journeys out of the palace’s stately entrance of glass and iron, welcoming the giant gods of this territory to come and partake in the debauchery therein.

The god Zeus lords the entrance with his wreath of tokens to be doled out to all who pass his gauntlet.

Zeus
Who goes there? Who seeks to joy the amusement and revelry at my castle this eve?

Aphrodite
It is I, Aphrodite, adorned in my most revealing robes, joined for this festive night by Adonis, who all will adore for his devilishly handsome good looks, until his charm wilts under the haze of too many ciders and much cavorting amongst the other gods.

Zeus
And yet, I do adore him.

Aphrodite
Of that I am aware, my leader.

Zeus
Come and lay your soft lips upon my cheek and I shall award you each two tokens. They will grant you libations and cheer within.

Scene 2

The vast room of the merrymaking is filled to the brim with all of the gods and goddesses of ‘Ville sharing countless tables laid with glimmering candles and boughs of pine and holly. A great feast of cold cuts, pasta with red sauce, and brownie sundaes is underway.

Apollo
Say there, good sir, have the warriors returned from the battlefield this eve?

Ares
All but one, my lord. Darkoneus remains out surveying the land for opportunity. No doubt he will arrive momentarily with the soil of war still staining his robes.

Apollo
 As do all the best guardians of the Land of High! Commendable! My heart is with them; not here, bound in these silken adornments that Mania selects for my garb.

Ares
Ah, goddesses. Their spirit of madness will never be quelled.

Apollo
Indeed.

Scene 3

Zeus now stands at the center of the massive carousing, calling the room to attention and growing restless with the cacophonous crowd. After much time and bellowing, the gods and goddesses have turned towards Zeus and are prepared to honor his remarks.

Zeus
My, my, my… you all are no better than a bunch of wily Sirens, calling your amorous songs to each other from across the divide. How can you have such little respect for the most honored annual tradition in Mount ‘Ville? I call together the Hall of most distinguished gods of all the land!
 
I demand that Hermes, Hades, Poseidon, Apollo, and Ares join together with me on this fine stage. Tonight we welcome a new god to immortality!
 
With the greatest pleasure I have ever known, we call Adonis to the Hall! Adonis, come! Adonis! Adonis? For the love of gods, where in Hades Chamber is Adonis?

Adonis (Stumbling, burping.)
Here, here, my lord! Just finishing this last sip of cider from the till…

Zeus
Ah, Adonis! You fabulous lad. An absolute crime that it has taken so many seasons to welcome you to the Hall. My very life is complete with you here this glorious eve!

[Vociferous drunken cheers erupt.]

Scene 4

Riotous music plays Zeus off the stage, which is instantly filled with youthful gods and goddesses, who’ve now imbibed much drink and are filled with the earlier lust of the Sirens’ calls. Lively dancing and groping soon ensues.

Athena
Oh, Poseidon, you move like liquid to this glorious song!

Poseidon
Aphrodite, your womanly wantonness positively drips from your scantly clad figure. I wish to show you my manly trident. I believe you will find it most alluring.

Athena
Don’t stop believin’.

Poseidon
Hold on to that feelin’.

Act II

Scene 1

Aphrodite lies sprawled in an immense bed strewn violently with an assortment of pillows and coverings. Besides her lies Pandora’s Box, which is incessantly emitting high-pitched howls.

A defeated Aphrodite rolls over slowly to examine the box.

[Text from Hera]:
Holy shit. Can u believe that party?

[Text from Aphrodite]:
Can’t move my feet.

[Text from Hera]:
Seriously. Did u see who left together? OMZ.

[Text from Aphrodite]:
Gonna puke.

[Text from Hera]:
Epic.

FIN.