Paella

You guys. I’m struggling to find the words. Tuesday’s class was the most tangible and immediate validation of my purpose for this blog, for nearly everything I do involving food: to give people the confidence to try something new in the kitchen, to show that cooking doesn’t have to be this big, intimidating, scary thing.

Digging in

At the beginning of the class I asked who had eaten paella–nearly everyone raised their hand. Who’s made paella? One, maybe two hands went up. But by the end, every one of the 24 people in the class (plus the amazing volunteers who cooked the “teacher’s” paella) could say yes, they’ve made (amazingly delicious!) paella. And they could all do it again, too!

Watching each group proudly unveil the beautiful meals they created at the end of class, the impressed comments from their classmates–I wanted to give them all a hug and say “Look! You made that!” Everyone sitting together to share conversation and food (and wine, there were some amazing sangrias at the table) had me mentally shouting “YES. This is what’s it’s about.” (I mostly restrained myself on the shouting and hugging; I only had one sangria–a much-appreciated glass beautifully prepared and with a pretty little lemon twist by one of the groups.)

Beautiful!
Saying hi to my first class
Lindsay arranging the final dishes

There were so many moments like that during the class, but this might have topped them all–one of the students came up to me at the end and told me she was really excited to try this at home. Then she said, “Honestly, I’ve had a paella pan sitting in the back of my closet for years and I’ve never used it. Now I have a reason!” Again I had to restrain myself from becoming a crazy hugging person, but I did tell her, “Yes!! You can totally do this!!”

Happy students
Ready to get started

And the comments on the feedback forms–I want to frame them, and not for my own ego. The best comments said that this intimidating dish was actually easy, that they tried or learned something new. Two of my favorite moments from the class were showing everyone a whole cuttlefish and walking around to let people smell smoked paprika, and it’s so rewarding to know that the class got something out of those moments too.

And I learned something in preparing for this class! I’ve never cooked cuttlefish before this week, but I love the stuff now (it’s like calamari, but thicker so less chance it will overcook). I added some to a salad last night and it was amazing.

Talking

For me, personally, there was a moment too. As anxious as I was in the days leading up to the class, as soon as I got to the kitchen and started setting up–it’s cliché, but I felt my nerves melt away. I know my way around a kitchen and a cutting board, I know how to cook.

Beyond the actual cooking portion of it, the years of practice I’ve had running web presentations at my day job were also surprisingly helpful. The speaking came easy because I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew how to handle questions and figure out if it bore repeating to the whole group; I could troubleshoot my slightly burned garlic or pans that were heating unevenly without panicking. There are definitely things that will improve with practice (like actually remembering I have a pan on the stove before the garlic burns), but for a first time, it couldn’t have possibly gone any better.

Paul, one of the excellent volunteers I had helping me

I also cannot say enough good things about the volunteers who did so much of the prep for the class (roasting the red peppers to steaming the seafood to cutting the cuttlefish and all the meat), who pretty much cooked “my” paella when I was busy teaching, and washed all the dishes. They (and Lindsay and Becky from PGP, who also get credit for most of the pictures) made the class happen without me feeling frantic. If you have a kitchen skill you want to share, Peterson Garden Project is the place to do it.

Making sangria for the volunteers

I’m already brainstorming more class ideas (and I want to do this one again too!) and can’t wait to share more with all of you.

Salud!

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Dining and Drinking in Paris (Part 1)

There is no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Paris for me was the food. I mean, come on. It’s a food culture practically built on bread and cheese, two of my most favorite food groups.

As I mentioned, I went to Paris with a pretty comprehensive list of places to eat that covered everything from hole-in-the-wall falafel stands to old school French bistros to small plates and wine bars. These are just three of best places I ate during the trip (another post to come shortly with more, but I figured 1,500 words was quite enough to start with): Au Petit Versailles, an amazing cafe; Breizh Cafe for spectacular crepes and cider; and Le Baron Rouge for wine and oysters.

Petite Versaille

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Spring Rolls!

Technically this was what was cooking on Tuesday, but let’s not nitpick. Last night I went to my first class at the new Fearless Food Kitchen on making one of my favorite dishes on earth, fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. It was fantastic!

Shrimp and tofu was my favorite combination

If you ever had Vietnamese spring rolls, you know they bear little resemblance to the deep fried versions at Chinese restaurants. These delicious bites are about as fresh as it gets: delicate (but sturdier than you’d think) rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh herbs and vegetables, noodles, plus shrimp, pork, and/or tofu and dipped in a sweet, salty, peanut-y sauce. They’re also great for using up whatever bits and pieces you have in the fridge.

The group was small, maybe eight people–perfect for chatting and asking our teacher plenty of questions. I’ve made these rolls before but what I loved about the class was learning the little tips that only someone who’s been making them for decades knows–things like what order to layer the ingredients (protein on the bottom so it looks pretty when it’s done, followed by noodles, vegetables, herbs, then lettuce), how to roll them to keep all the good stuff inside and look pretty too. She even taught us that you could make a simple light soup from the broth made after cooking the shrimp and pork to serve with the rolls.

Great class in a beautiful space!

After our lovely instructor gave us a spring roll assembly demo, we all got to make as many rolls as we liked with our favorite mix of ingredients. It was great fun to try different variations and especially to see what other people were making. The only think I’m bummed about is that I missed how to make the dipping sauce! I know it involves peanut butter and possibly hoisin. I hope someone in the class reads this and shares what I missed, it’s probably my hands-down favorite part of eating spring rolls.

Dipping the rice paper wrappers Beautiful!

If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an evening, try out one of the Fearless Food Kitchen classes (and class volunteers get to take the class for free in exchange for some help prepping and cleaning up–totally worth it in my opinion). They have a class tonight on making seasonal salads that sounds awesome and I’ve heard great things about the juicing and smoothie classes too.

Recipe to come soon!

Sharing food and my favorite recipe

In my post earlier this week, I talked about the challenges and possibilities of a home-cooked meal. It prompted some wonderful conversations that made me realize I didn’t clearly address the other half of this whole issue: the importance of how we share that meal with family, friends, and community. Conveniently this dovetails nicely with one of my all-time favorite recipes.


I, we, can talk all day long about how to make homemade meals possible given all the challenges and roadblocks in our society, making fresh food accessible, everything I said on Monday. But, I think, equally important is how we share food with the people around us.

If you’ve been to any one of my mom’s summer parties in the past, oh, 15 years, you probably recognize this. It’s a party stand-by, incredible payoff for minimal effort. Salmon is brined with salt and brown sugar, spiced with ginger, allspice, and bay. It’s coated with honey, freckled with peppercorns, and smoked with applewood for a perfect combination of sweet, salty, rich, spicy, spiced, and smoky. It’s heaven.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

As good as this salmon tastes (and if I haven’t made it clear, oh my god it is good), it’s memorable because of the people I associate it with. The family friends my mom got the recipe from, friends who also shared cookie day with us for more than two decades. My best friend and I sneaking a more than ample chunk to share at my mom’s house-warming and catching up on a rare summer day when we were both in town from our respective new cities (I know we are true and life-long friends because her first question when I mention a party at my mom’s is “Will the salmon be there?” She has her priorities straight). I remember it at big family parties on the bay and casual weekend barbecues, my high school graduation party, my sisters’ 18th birthdays.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns
Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

I know this as a dish to share with friends and family when warm weather comes, which is why it was the very first thing I knew I had to make for my own house-warming party in July (and a great excuse to test my new grill). Wrapped in its own little foil plate, it’s casual and low-fuss to serve and can even be made a few days in advance. But again, it’s what it represents with the people it brings together–circles of friends new and old sharing food and drinks and music on a warm, sunny, summer day.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercornsSmoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

My parents both showed me the importance of taking time to make a good home-cooked meal, they showed me how to cook. More than the food on the table, though, they showed me that it’s how and with whom that food is shared that matters; it’s about taking time and effort to acknowledge others. It was sitting at the dinner table with my dad and sisters talking about school, laughing about my teacher who wouldn’t let me wear an Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt because she thought the buckeye looked like pot. It was naming the best thing that happened during the day around the table with my mom.

Even on the affectionately named Hell Nights, when coordinating work schedules and activities for three kids meant dinner was picked up or eaten out, we still found a way to make the meal matter. I credit those Hell Night Chinese restaurant dinners with teaching me the math skills to calculate a tip. And that paper umbrellas and Shirley Temples are underrated.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

Yes, the quality of the food on the plate is important and I stand by everything I said Monday. But what I really, truly hope is that we continue to value the connections made over a shared meal. Those connections are deep and they are vital in the most literal sense of the word; they give life as truly as the food we eat. The food doesn’t need to be elaborate (or even homemade), the occasion doesn’t need to be special; all that’s required is genuine interest in the person across the table.

Smoked salmon with honey and peppercorns

(For another really thoughtful observation on this discussion, read Erica’s post at Northwest Edible Life, which inspired my original post.)

Smoked Salmon with Honey and Peppercorns
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Too much of a good thing

Summer is a funny time for food. It starts with FRESH. EVERYTHING.

Skewered and fired

On one side of the coin, fruits and vegetables are so good I want to make every recipe I stumble on. I want to make a pie a day, fruit scones and sauces, ice cream and jam. I want salads of everything I can get my hands on, grilled anything, stuffed sandwiches spilling their juicy vegetable insides all down my arm while I try to pretend that I’m civilized and that I know how to use a napkin.

Kabobs

On the other side of that coin, though, I don’t want to cook at all. What could be more perfect than the freshest berries or sweet little peas eaten straight out of hand? Why mess with perfection like that? The most amazing lettuce tossed with a squeeze of lemon, drizzle of oil, sprinkle of salt—nothing else is called for or needed. A plate of vegetables and fruit, maybe a little sausage and cheese, a chunk of crusty bread and (hopefully! finally!) a sunny, not-too-humid evening on the porch with a glass of wine and the sounds of the city.

Smoky Garlic-y

(That all sounds much more romantic than the more frequent reality—it’s too hot or rainy to grill or I’m too tired to cook anything by the time I get home. I like the romantic version better.)

Sauced
That said, I think this recipe is a pretty good compromise between the two sides. Vegetables (whatever you like and is in season) are skewered and brushed with a smoky glaze before a quick sizzle on the grill to barely soften; shrimp and spicy smoked sausage are an optional, though delicious, addition. Add a chunk of salty Spanish cheese and that piece of crusty bread (along with that glass of wine) to elevate this to fancy party snack fare.

Grilling

Speaking of the sounds of the city, I’ve been on a Chicago reading kick this summer. The two books so far that I’ve been recommending to everyone are 1001 Nights in Chicago by Ben Hecht (I got the edition with the introduction by Bill Savage, expert in all things literary and Chicago, and my former professor and thesis advisor), and Never a City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz.

1001 Nights, a compilation of 2-3 page character sketches written for Hecht’s 1920’s newspaper column, is easy to pick up and put down or open to any page and start reading–nothing feels as break-the-rules summer-y as that to me. Kotlowitz’s book is short, only 160 pages, but it’s a great look at some of the less-talked-about parts of the city and its people: the Bud Billiken parade, the southwest side’s union past, an artist who paints murals in public housing, a lawyer who works at the county courthouse. Kotlowitz’s book is pretty current, Hecht’s is nearly 100 years old, but there’s a not-so-surprising continuity in the people, history, and feel of Chicago.

Next on my list, whenever I get my hands on a copy, is The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja, along with some requisite summer fluff reading. Anything on your summer to-read list?

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