Them Dinners with Nick

The Goal: Each week an invite to all my local friends. First 5 to RSVP get a home-cooked meal.
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icanhasphilly:

Dear mayor nutter #whyilovephilly

icanhasphilly:

This is as juicy and dramatic as it may get during the vegan challenge.

Call it what you want: I failed, I slipped, I cheated, unknowingly.

The 4th Wednesday of the month, you can see me hanging out with The Food For All Collective (TFFAC) . We are an urban bulk buying food club located in…

Papa Marzano says personal goal setting is about more than SMART design and accountability refs. It’s about being honest with yourself when you describe what you really want, why it’s valuable, and how it benefits you and those around you. So while I may have all of my 2013 ambitions laid out SMART goal style in the dork-checkered pattern of an Excel spreadsheet, here are my Them Dinners resolutions in three simple steps:

RULE #1:  Be Clear About What you Really Want! [Emotion creates motion rule]

  • I WANT to provide a space for friends to participate with me in family meal, and all the trimmings that come along with it: regularity, simplicity, generosity, and shared responsibility. (And yes I might mean regularity in both senses of the word. Nutrition is a many splendored thing.) 
  • I WANT to stop featuring the food, the menu, the dinner party, and get back to featuring the experience of cooking and the people I cook with/for.

RULE # 2:  Focus On Taking Action that Produces Results toward Goals [Keep “the main thing the main thing” rule]

  • Dialed back the planning burden. Dinner parties are for another time. Them Dinners is consistent, routine, family meal.
  • Bought three new Italian cookbooks including Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
  • Planned out the rough Them Dinners calendar into July. 
  • Finalizing simple menu plan for first two months of Them Dinners (4 total).

RULE # 3:  Take Action Today [‘Tis better to ship now than ship nothing at all rule]

  • Sent out the invite for 2013’s first Them Dinners this Sunday (WOOHOO!)
  • Sending out invite for next three dinners (through February) by this weekend

That feels like a pile of ambitious nerd I just dropped in your e-laps. However, I’m also pretty sure it’s how you resolve to do some shit. We shall see won’t we?

So what’s on the menu for Sunday? A couple of pasta sauces, homemade pasta, a veggie, and some homemade bread. I haven’t figured it out beyond that yet. And that feels amazing.

A couple Sundays back I baked 300+ biscotti with my mom in the double-ovened majesty of my parents’ new kitchen. Believe it or not, it’s the Irish-German side, not the Marzanos, who started the Christmas biscotti tradition. That’s Grandma von Funk keeping us company.

Recent non-Them Dinners adventures in baking. Devils food cake (w/mayo!) with chocolate cream and dark chocolate ganache.

Recipe from Bouchon Bakery cookbook. http://bouchonbakery.com/

Great article out of the Hill from June of this year on a trend hitting DC.

Here in Philly, I’m pretty sure we call this concept “Them Dinners” and do it in row houses instead of restaurants. 

Them Dinners 2.0

Here’s the new normal:

  1. Consistent. I will be cooking at least once a week, enough for myself and five others.
  2. Expansive. An open table to all on my email list, which will probably grow. There will be an RSVP in place, but only to help guests anticipate what they should bring. The first five to respond know they have food waiting for them here and a seat at the table if they want one. I hope they’ll come by to help cook, bring something, chip in online (partnering with http://www.zokos.com to enable “pay what you wish” contributions) or participate in some way. Same goes for friends who RSVP after the first five. Those folks need to know that food might be scarce and that they might be eating on the coffee or folding table. They should coordinate with others to make sure someone is bringing another main dish. If no one shows up that week, no big deal either. I just have leftovers for five days!;)
  3. Laid-back. No more food fanfare. I won’t be sending out menus ahead of time with my invites or posting them here on the blog. Preparing menus was sometimes fun, but week-in week-out it got to be a total chore. I will still plan ahead, as beans cannot be soaked, doughs cannot be risen, and cakes cannot be set day-of. But that’s part of my internal process and I will figure that out. I’ll talk and tweet about my ideas, but I won’t lock myself in. If life gets ahead of me and I need to adjust to something I can cook in one hour, or set in a crock pot, I want that flexibility. That’s genuine. That’s cooking in the context of life. If friends have food allergies or preferences we’ll figure out a plan by doing what friends do: talk. Call me and ask what’s on the menu. If I see a friend with a known food allergy on the RSVP list, I’ll do what I can to adjust my plan, or I’ll call and let them know that I’m set on something that might not agree. Talking: isn’t that civilized?
  4. Cookbooks. To hell with parallel structure! And to hell with recipes! No more tips and tricks. I want to learn how to cook. I’m hungry as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore! Here’s where I’m starting (so you can expect a large amount of Italian for the foreseeable future):

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I hope you’ll follow me as I try my best to chronicle this reboot experiment. While I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional food porn photo—especially if one of my camera-savvy friends shows up—it promises to be much more of a social and genuine experience than anything in recipe culture, and certainly anything on Food Network.

-Nick

Getting Back to Family Meal

My housemate works at a restaurant here in Philly called Talula’s Garden. He helps with daily prep, but his primary cooking responsibility is to make family meal for the back of house staff. He has used that post to learn as much as he possibly can about the building blocks of cooking: stocks, breads, sauces, etc. Yeast starters and rising dough have started hanging out in the corners of our fridge. More than once I’ve come home to the smell of fresh bread and feint traces of flour on the counter, and wished I’d arrived earlier to catch him in the midst of his art. And perhaps that he’d wiped the counter a little better…but that’s neither here nor there. His dedication to complete mastery of the simple things is inspiring.

It’s had me thinking on where Them Dinners went wrong. It was supposed to be about family meal. Specifically, family meal for those of us without families of our own yet, who don’t want to put off the social (soul-cial?) benefits of regular homemade meals and broken bread. So how is a true family experience different from what Them Dinners became?

  • Family meals are expansive. My grandmother never had a seat cap at her table. If you had a reason for being there, you were family and you were welcomed.
  • Family meals are also participatory. They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the same goes for dinner. Close relatives would arrive early to help my grandmother cook. Acquaintances would bring offerings for the table, and carry table conversation into the kitchen to help with dishes, working up an appetite for dessert. In my immediate family, my brother and I would rotate week to week between prep cook and clean-up for my dad’s elaborate culinary exploits.
  • Family meals do not exist primarily to be surprising, daring, or center stage. Sure, they can be a safe place to take risks, but above all else they are reliable, stable, waiting for you.
  • Sustained, regular cooking requires an understanding of ingredients, not access to a bottomless catalog of recipes. Food shows and even cutting edge food blogs have amplified the recipe so much that skill seems reserved for those who have given their careers to the line or a culinary school. Screw that.

I am much bigger fan of goals than resolutions. In 2013 one big goal is to set Them Dinners right. That means a commitment to weekly dinners, an expansive guest list welcoming of friends new and old, a focus on learning the fundamentals of cooking, and trust that most of my family of friends don’t want to be that uncle who brings nothing and falls asleep on the couch after dinner. Though, like family, he’s welcome too.

next… Them Dinners 2.0 

previous… Hi, My Name Is Them Dinners and I Have a Problem

Hi, My Name Is Them Dinners and I Have a Problem. 

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Them Dinners, as it existed when I hosted guests for the last time in September 2012, was sick. Conceptually. So much so that I couldn’t even bring myself to post pictures of the lackluster gnocchi, or sit down to write something about table conversation, which felt forced despite a genuinely wonderful group of friends. Something felt disingenuous, and I think we all instinctively felt what it was. It had become a production. An aspiring Food Network show without a video camera (though I considered getting one, an idea that rightfully appalled my friends). Life imitating art imitating life.

But like most insidious and destructive behaviors, it had a lot of support. Well-intentioned enablers. People loved the idea, and the execution seemed logical enough: First five guests and no more to keep the table small and prices down; recipes ahead of time to inform guests with allergies or preferences; and a blog to capture the fleeting creations and conversations of a dinner party. I suppose the end result looked like something worthy of some praise, and it was often fun. Quietly though, the means were compromising the end. Old friends were turned away because the seating cap had been reached, sometimes by new acquaintances. To go above it meant dinner served on laps, an unmanageable kitchen, and last minute runs for extra ingredients. Against my extroverted nature, I was stingy and judicious about who I added to the email pool of potential guests. Dinners were also becoming increasingly expensive and labor intensive, often requiring a full 12 hours from shopping to table. This is not to mention the joyless drudgery that had become composing menus, authoring evites, and producing engaging blog content.

And the cooking. Them Dinners was supposed to be an opportunity to develop and broaden my cooking skills. Yet I found myself as much a slave to recipes in July as I had been in February. Food Network and food porn culture has imprinted this mantra on us: food should be exciting, daring, sexy, and always surprising. I have combed websites for the tools to make this performance happen again and again, all along retaining very little understanding of the art or alchemy. There is a time and a place for these daring leaps out of your culinary comfort zone, but consistent family meals are not meant to be events, let alone magic acts.

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next… Getting Back to Family Meal

There is no excuse for that pun. Well except maybe this:

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Gearing up for a Sunday potluck down the street, I decided to try my hand at this recipe for sweet potato gnocchi. Fortunately, I tested it out the night before and realized it was complete RUBBISH. Sweet potatoes are an amazing thing, but they are also very (wait for it) moist. The amount of flour called for here is way out of whack. Two yams v. 2.5 cups of flour? No one wins. My test batch Saturday night dutifully followed the instructions and came out of the boiling waiter looking like soggy, swollen, lymph nodes of pasta. The raving reviews and comments baffle me. I can only assume these people have never had gnocchi (or food) before. Now, I’ve only made gnocchi a couple of times, but I have enough tactile knowledge to be dangerous, and this just felt wrong. And kids, if something feels wrong, it probably is wrong. Tell an adult.

Attempt two came just hours before the potluck, so I had one shot to figure out what went so horribly wrong with the first batch. With a few tweaks to the recipe, this simple dish went from limp dumplings to sweet pockets of potato lovin. Here are some other changes to the above recipe I would recommend:

  • Russet potatoes — I went for a 2-3 ratio, russets to yams. Other recipes out there call for this, and what initially drew me to this crap recipe was that it was pure yam. That, as it turns out, is a bad idea.
  • Bake your potatoes — Don’t boil your potatoes and, for God’s sake people, don’t microwave them as instructed by this travesty of a recipe. I didn’t do this on either attempt. Instead, bake about 45 minutes at 400. Cut them open and let them steam off some moisture for as long as possible.
  • Egg — Where is the egg in this recipe?! I know it seems counterintuitive with all the moisture, but throw at least one in there.
  • Sweet potato flour — I used about 1.5 cups flour and .5 sweet potato flour. Bear in mind this was for 3 large potatoes. A VERY different ratio than the original called for, and the sweet potato flour helps soak up the moisture without drastically changing the composition.

Just another example of the most important cooking technique: trusting your senses. If it feels like good gnocchi, and tastes like it’s on its way to good gnocchi, it probably will become good gnocchi. This dish got swarmed and was gone within minutes of setting it on the table.

Did I mention it was a pumpkin carving potluck? Happy Halloween everyone!

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