Cookbook Club

About a year and a half ago, my now-friend Katy started a cookbook club in Seattle. The idea was to pick a cookbook and invite everyone to choose a recipe to cook from it for a potluck.  I love this particular concept, because my first forays into cooking were through reading cookbooks.  I latched onto the stories and memories a cookbook author shares even before attempting many recipes, and I’ve always felt the most safe and content curled up with a cookbook and a mug of something warm.

I’d read of food bloggers and other general “food people” holding these types of cookbook gatherings, but never felt myself “foodie” enough for them, and never seemed to have the glut of foodie friends necessary to pull one off. Katy started her club as a Meetup, and as soon as I saw the announcement, I couldn’t join fast enough.

Our first meetup was held in Katy’s candlelit Capitol Hill apartment in mid November. It was loud and joyous.  We cooked from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and blog; I remember I made a wild mushroom tart whose crust wasn’t quite right, but I patched it together and brought it anyway and everyone told me kindly how beautiful it was.  We showed up eagerly prepared to eat and to be generous with one another.  Cookbook club is always a great reminder to me of how easy and worthwhile it is to be generous with others, and how generosity has such power to help us all bloom.

I’ve attended countless cookbook clubs since then, at houses and apartments and travel hostels and parks. I’ve cooked Persian omelettes, Indonesian potato salad, and Chinese hot and sour tofu, and baked Mexican pumpkin seed cookies.  I’ve seen people soften in the presence of shared food and community.  It’s why I desperately wanted to bring that spirit back to Minneapolis with me and start a cookbook club in the Twin Cities.

As I’ve visited Seattle over the past six months, I’ve signed up for cookbook clubs whenever I’ve had the opportunity. During my current visit, Arlie and I hosted a potluck at his house.  We cooked from V Street: 100 Globe-Hopping Plates on the

cutting Edge of Vegetable Cooking.  It was an experiment for me, because it was the first cookbook I’d chosen that was entirely vegan.We had about 15 guests, and the food was sensational.

pakoras

We ate spicy noodles with shiitake mushrooms, silky grilled eggplant, potato pakora with a puckery-sweet tamarind sauce.  And two kinds of ice cream: sweet potato and halva.

many_plates

Throughout the evening, I managed to ask most people if they were vegan “in real life”, and all but one said no, but that the food was amazing, and a few people said this with surprise.  The one vegan I did speak with also seemed overjoyed to be able to eat every single thing available.

eggplantFood aside, though, what I love about these gatherings is the diversity. Because the meetup is so big now, over one thousand members, I meet new people at every one.  I’ve met folks from India, Japan, South America, and Indonesia.  I love my friends, and appreciate the ones who like to spend time cooking and eating with me, but I also cherish the perspective brought by sharing meals with people I don’t know, and may, in fact, never see again.  Those interactions can be simple and sweet or powerfully memorable.  We start with the food in common, and then realize how much life we have in common, too, and the differences help us grow.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I was not successful in getting Meetup to work for me, so I created a Facebook group for the makings of a cookbook club in the Twin Cities. If you’re in the Twin Cities, or visit the Twin Cities with any regularity and want to be a part of it, please join.  I want to make a vibrant, generous community here too, and I’d love to have your help.

Edited to Add: This is my first time trying to upload images on this blog, and, as you can see, I leave a lot to be desired. Next time, I’ll include descriptions with the file name, since my screenreader isn’t reading them. Sorry to any blindies reading this, image descriptions with their corresponding file names are below:

Pakoras: Close-up of pakoras and sauce, with slices of green onion on top of the pakoras. Photo by Kwan Mariam, description by Arlie

Many Plates: Lots of plates, including eggplant, pakoras, cucumber and onion salad Cauliflower, a bowl of harissa, papadums with dal, and pizza. Photo by Kayla, description by Arlie

Eggplant: Close-up of eggplant, with bottles of wine behind it and the pizza sneaking into the picture. Photo by Kwan Mariam, description by Arlie

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Last summer, I signed up for a CSA from Oxbow Farm in Carnation, Washington. It brought things I’ve never seen in a CSA: fava beans, rhubarb, fresh coriander seed, radicchio. Suddenly, I realized what the fuss was about. Every other CSA I’ve gotten always bragged that it would give you access to “veggies you’ve never even heard of.” Not to brag myself, but I’ve been eating kale for a decade, people, way before it was cool. I don’t need a CSA to teach me the ways of the butternut or collard. But this CSA, this quintessentially Northwest box that might include sour cherries one week, dragon tongue beans the next, gave me many new cooking projects for my money. Of course, there was the normal glut of summer squash and cucumbers, which is great when they first show up on Week 4 and totally maddening and soul-crushing by Week 12, but no CSA is perfect.

I was preparing to mourn the loss of this season’s Northwest bounty because of my impending move, but received an email last week informing me that crops were growing and I could have an early-season box by next Friday. Rhubarb, chard, little potatoes, shallots and chives, (which will be given away, due to my hatred of anything onion-y). I couldn’t believe I could have rhubarb already. I thought of jam and pie and coffee cake. I thought of tiny summer strawberries and tender asparagus. Not long now.

Maybe it will motivate me to plant some more seeds. I should probably never have stopped.

I am so grateful that spring comes earlier here. Even more because it will be my last early spring, at least for a while, and I’m happy to have a few more CSA boxes before I leave. I’d like to think I’ll be back someday. At least for a while.

I’m about to do something totally unbecoming. I’m warning you so that you can skip ahead, or stop reading entirely.
I know it’s awful to be all braggadocio about your weather, especially when you are from the Midwest, and the weather in the Midwest in February is the last thing anyone has ever bragged about. The thing is, though, that I’ve questioned my move to Seattle enough times, publicly and privately, that I need to set the record straight.
Yesterday, it was 55 degrees and the sun settled on everything: warm, intimate, embracing. Kiva all but pranced. I think I did prance. On the bus, the windows were open and there was a breeze and I was reading a book that didn’t, as my classmate Cynthia says, “feel like reading sandpaper.” This is why I moved here, for days like this, slivers of February that feel like April. I know the rain will be back, but right now, and for the next few days, we have sun and warm-ish breeze.
After getting home last night, and in celebration of the sun, I made marmalade. I have to confess I’m becoming kind of giddy about making jam. It’s strange because I prefer my toast only with butter, if even that, and find most store-bought jam too sweet. Yet, there’s something nourishing to me about a cupboard full of squat glass jars, each holding some preserved essence of a particular time and place. I started buying farmers’ market and small-batch jams to get that cupboard-full feeling, and found them to be a bit less sweet and a bit thinner than supermarket ones, which lends well to stirring into oatmeal or yogurt and granola, the hippie breakfast of champions. But, of course, because I am over the top, I bought way too many jams that I wasn’t eating. So many flavors that I’d never heard of, I had to try them all. Except they just sat in the cupboard, because I also liked just looking at them there, picturing their vibrant colors and textures behind the glass.
Now, I make jam. I am not allowed to buy jam that I think I can make at home. And citrus marmalade, which I love for its bitter and its sweet, seemed fitting for a warm day in February.

I decided to use Meyer lemons, which I’m guessing you can get in the Midwest somewhere, but which seem to be everywhere here since we’re so close to California. I just discovered them this year and I adore them. Their skins are thin, their juice is almost sweet, and they smell floral and almost unreal. I’ve been keeping a bowl on the counter so that I can smell them every time I’m on my way through the kitchen. Breathing them in, I picture living in a house with a Meyer lemon tree outside my bedroom window. And people accuse me of not being romantic!
Anyway, the marmalade splattered wildly and gave me a blistery burn on my knuckles. Not romantic at all. It started out a gloopy mess of water and sugar and rind and seeds tied in a bundle that I thought would never, ever reach its set point. Jam-making is like baking bread in that way. When I first started playing with dough, and even sometimes now, several years later, I can’t believe my first few minutes of kneading will produce anything resembling bread. The dough is too dry, too sticky, too craggy, sometimes, somehow, all of the above. Then, things somehow start working, despite or in spite of my uncertainty. Same with jam. I stare at the pot of fruit bits suspended in syrup. I stir it. It is wet and sticky and unappetizing. It does nothing for twenty minutes. I’m worried my jam will need to be renamed: “fruit bits in syrup.” And then, somehow, without much input from me, it sets up. It clings to the sides of the pot like it’s supposed to. It sustains its temperature, even after I stir it down. I can hardly pat myself on the back, because all I did was worry it wouldn’t come out right.
So it was with the marmalade, and yet, it gelled nicely, after about 45 tedious minutes. It remained wickedly bitter and retained its texture, which I like. And now, I have two pints of marmalade to tuck away for a rainy day, when toast and tea and a sunny yellow preserve is in order. I’m certain there will still be many of those before spring.

On Abundance

I have a romantic, idealized notion of apple picking in the fall. (Also, pumpkin patches, hayrides, corn mazes, and cider doughnuts.) I could never say no to an invite for a Sunday afternoon at an orchard, with the sun muted and the leaves snapping under my boots. Luckily, I’ve gotten no such invitations this year. I say “luckily” because I foolishly signed up for a fruit share as part of my CSA this season.

The fruit share is from OPMA in Eastern Washington, and brought cherries in the beginning of the summer; a couple weeks of peaches and plums; and what seems like coon’s ages of apples and pears, though I suppose if I’m supposed to be exercising restraint against hyperbole, it actually only started in late August. There were the Boscs and the Bartletts and one week of Anjou. There were Honeycrisps and Galas and Golden Delicious and Granny Smith. Plus, things I’ve never heard of in the apple world: Fortune, Sweet Louise, Cameo. “An apple a day” has fueled me for two months, and I don’t mind that much. It’s only when the paper bags of fruit make a tower on the counter and the table, all in various stages of ripening to rotting, where my panic over abundance kicks in. Some people worry about not having a fully stocked, apocalypse ready larder. My worries are the opposite: of so much fleeting bounty that I forget to slow down and truly take it all in.

It pains me to admit this next part, but I don’t like most baked apple things. I love the idea of apple pie, but can never manage to enjoy the reality. A cinnamon-sugar baked apple is something I dread being served for dessert somewhere where it’s only polite to eat it. Arlie and I made an apple crisp with some of the Galas that was barely passable, only because I put candied ginger, walnuts, oats, and dried cherries in the topping, so you couldn’t taste much cooked apple. Plus ice cream. And I still sent him home with half of it.

So, now I’ve turned to canning. I love the idea of canning, but have always been too chicken to do anything beyond that. Lucky for me, the pounds of fruit on my counter are forcing my hand. I’ve taken all my recipes so far from Marisa Mcclellan and her book Preserving by the Pint. First, I made the Honey Lemon Pear Butter, and was so excited slash nervous about botulism and other canning fatalities that I forgot the cinnamon. Then, Stuart and I made the Winter Fruit Mostarda, which required boiling apples and pears in a honey syrup, then packing the fruit into jars, then reducing the syrup, then ladling the syrup over the fruit. WAY too annoying, though quite good after we finished.

In the later part of the week, we made Apple Rosemary Jam and Chocolate Pear Jam, and we implemented a system. I cored and peeled and mixed and simmered, he prepared the jars and lids and bands for the boiling water bath. I still don’t know if my jam set properly; Marisa says that “you’ll know when it’s done when you pull a spatula through the jam and it doesn’t immediately rush in to fill the space you’ve cleared.” I suppose it’s my calling for the rest of the fall to keep making jam, so I can figure out a non-visual way to accomplish this. I like some texture in my jam, so I basically just stirred it until I was afraid if I didn’t pull it soon, it would collapse into runny pools and I’d have to call it syrup and tell you that, “obviously I meant to do that.”

Of course, this 1950’s housewife jam making hobby doesn’t take in the fact that I actually hardly ever eat jam. I buy jam, because it always sounds so good and wholesome. But then the calendar turns and suddenly, it’s been in my cupboard for a year and I’m panicking because I really should open it up. Home canning commandments say to use your jam within a year. Once again, abundance. It really isn’t something I should complain about.

Stuart suggested I save the jam I’m making for holiday gifts, (here after known as Giftmas or Solsticemas in this blog). He insisted my family would love it. I recalled all the family celebrations where my aunts would bring jars of pear butter and preserves as their gift exchange offering, and my parents would dutifully take them home; then, I’d be home sometime in the summer and see the jars in the fridge, top-crusted and sad-looking. I totally get it. The first toast-and-jam goes down easy, then I go back to dinner leftovers or skipping breakfast entirely.

Maybe, though, my abundance, and the preserving of that abundance by my own hands, will help me enjoy eating it more. Abundance is teaching me more about gratitude, and jelly points and headspace, than I could have imagined back when I was only eating cherries. For that, I’m thankful.