10 February 2009

Luncheon on Saturday

My friend Emily came over on Saturday to have lunch with us at our apartment. The meal barely took around twenty minutes to put together, because I had already soaked and boiled chickpeas the day before. I find that if I make my own cooked chickpeas, the final cost analysis leaves me much more comfortable than when I spend on tinned chickpeas from the store. When I looked around for a sale, I finally found some chickpeas at the store for $1.25/lb at the Indian store in Queens. That will easily double in volume when soaked, and increase still a bit more when boiled.

For one pound of cooked chickpeas, I'd pay about $0.50/lb. However, the weight of those tinned beans does include water, meaning that I'm paying a premium price for water. I don't know about y'all, but paying that sort of money for water is unacceptable. The point is that while I do keep some tinned beans in the pantry for emergencies, I use them only for emergencies, and don't count on them when I am looking for something to eat. This doesn't mean that I get annoyed when having to use them: I did buy them for a reason, after all!

At any rate, we did the dry roasted garbanzos from the cookbook, and one of the versions of aubergine. Emily had brought over some of those long Japanese ones which were slender and seemingly seedless (say that five times fast!), and ever so tender. We just sliced them up thickly, and those cooked up in no time flat.

And of course, I had a pot of brown rice already made by the time my friend came over, so that we could get down to the business of eating, as soon as possible! Everything was lovely, but more than that, the company was quite a lot of fun. We've decided to make this a weekly thing. Just by sheer dumb luck, I'd happened to call my mother today, and tell her of all the fun we had together, when my mother tells me that my sister was having friends over on Monday night too. They also live in a tiny apartment, but it's in Arizona, not New York (boo).

She spent to the tune of two or three hours in prepping ingredients, cooking, and then cleaning up the aftermath of the mess in the kitchen before everyone arrived. Once we discussed how I did this, she figured it would be quite sensible to follow my format, of having the main dish there at the place where everyone convenes for the feast, but have each guest bring a vegetable, and do the prep and cooking together. If the person doesn't have a lot of money, this is perfectly ideal, because now, you have a chance to get a huge meal with an investment of only a couple of dollars for whatever it is you're buying. Even if you buy expensive, or fancy ingredients, you're only buying around a pound or two, and that's enough to share with everyone else. This is just for one meal, remember. Leftovers may happen, but you should count on just that one meal.

So although we did buy those aubergines earlier in the week in Queens, for about $0.79/lb, even at the regular price of $3/lb, someone could afford to buy it, as it's only $3. When you do the potluck style where everyone cooks at home, it becomes a burden, because it's not just that one ingredient they're buying, but rather, dipping into their own stores of weekly groceries to make this happen. How easy is it to pop into a grocery store on the way to your friend's house, and grab a couple heads of broccoli, or a pound of peppers, or a tin of cooked beans (a larger one, please) if you're in a hurry or uncooked lentils if you're not, or even some salad material (lettuce, tomato, scallions, cucumber, and a little but of nuts)? It doesn't take but a minute to run in and run out, and then head over.

Once everyone arrives, you have the major cooking (rice, dry beans that're now soaked and boiled, etc.) taken care of, and it's just a question of putting together the quicker cooking foods, like the fresh produce. If you're not looking towards potatoes, or other slow cooking heavy root veggies, you can have a very easy time of chopping and cooking together.

That being said, if you're in a small apartment, and have a tiny kitchen, like I do, feel free to branch out to the dining room table, coffee table, or any other spare space you can see, with cutting boards and knives, to help with the prep work. This way, only the person who's essential to be in the kitchen need be in there, and the rest can help, while chatting on with a glass of juice or wine or water or fizzy drink, and still having a good time anyway. If you have kids who want to help too, but you're nervous about handling knives, let them do jobs that they can do without hurting themselves. After giving their hands a good washing (it's important to encourage your kids to follow good hygiene), let them rip up the dark leafy greens or remove the greens from the stems, or squish the avocado to make guacamole (it's a good thing if it's not uniform, because good guacamole has a bit of texture), or take the string part off the string beans, or help out with collecting the vegetable scraps for the compost bin as they show up. Get everyone involved, and it's so much more fun that way!

I'd suggest that if you try the same thing in your house (where others come over to cook with you), maybe try the following tips, to make it fun for everyone:

1. Prepare any long cooking ingredients before your guests arrive. That is, soak and boil beans the day before, get your water boiling for pasta and/or cook the rice about an hour before, and clear off some work space in your counter top. I have a tiny New York kitchen, and it makes me quite crazy to have anything on it, because otherwise, I have no workspace.

2. If you're like me, and you have very little kitchen space, feel free to branch out and use any available surface to seat a cutting board and a knife. If you know that you don't have knives and cutting boards, ask people to bring their own as well, or run down to your dollar store, and grab a few cheap cutting boards. That way, people just need to bring their favourite knife.

3. Don't worry about a specific plan in cooking the food. This isn't about the food. It's about having your friends come together for a fun time of working together to make a meal happen. If someone has an idea that sounds interesting, let them try it out. You may all learn something new! I was once at a party where people had never tried simply broiled tomatoes. I showed them how to do it, and it was like everyone was discovering tomatoes for the first time ever! (Just slice tomatoes into thick slices, and lay under the broiler, with a teensy bit of oil, for about five to eight minutes, checking on them every couple of minutes. Cook until little black spots form on the cut surface of the tomato. When they're out of the oven, lay on a basil leaf, and sprinkle on lime juice. Excellent stuff.)

4. Don't be afraid to taste something quick cooked, to get an idea of what it tastes like. If someone brings something that nobody has a foggy clue what it is (except the name), you can't go wrong with slicing off a bit, frying it up in a bit of oil on your stove, till the thing looks cooked. Go with a thin slice, so that it cooks quickly. Taste it, and see what works.

5. If you have people who do not drink, make sure to have on hand some sparkling cider, or seltzer water that's been flavoured with a bit of ginger juice (grate up fresh ginger, squeeze out the juice) and a twist of lime. This is meant to be a festive occasion for everyone.

6. If you're doing this weekly, skip the expensive ingredients, and stick with cheap stuff that everyone can afford. In fact, avoid serving alcohol every week, as it's expensive. Serve wine or beer or other things only occasionally. If it really is only once in a great while that everyone gets together, go nuts (responsibly, please)!

7. If there's an awkward lull in the conversation, don't be afraid to reminisce about memories of how everyone met, or something along those lines. I find that it gets everyone talking again in short order, and things pick up. If you do prefer there to be background noise, stick with music that can be enjoyed as background noise. You don't want it to drown out conversations!

The point is, all you need is one other friend to do this with, and a commitment to each other to make it work. If you'd like to alternate houses, that works too! For my friends who come over, they get an afternoon of fun and food and cooking together. For me, I get a good kick in the backside to keep my apartment relatively clean, so that when people do come over, it's just a quick clearing off of the kitchen, or hanging up a coat in the closet, rather than an elaborate cleaning all over again.

It also prevents me from falling into cooking ruts. There are times when I'll default to food that I've been making since I was a little kid, because I've made it so many thousands of times by now, that I can practically do it in my sleep (this includes any kind of bean or vegetable soup, and pasta). If I don't keep an eye on myself, I will stop exploring, for ease of preparation, rather than keeping my search up for new and interesting ways to do things. Everyone ends up with something that they wouldn't have had without the group.

Try it out some time, and let me know how it goes. And if you have any hints to share, feel free to comment, and let others see them as well!