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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Where Are They Now?: Casseroles

What happened to the casserole? 

I just may try this one....
The casserole gets a bad rap. It is associated with uninspired family dinners --something harried housewives or new brides who lacked skill in the kitchen could easily make ahead. They also relied heavily on prepackaged like canned tuna or Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. A Wikipedia entry on tuna noodle casserole states, without irony, that “Tuna casserole is convenient to the extent that it may be prepared using no fresh ingredients.” Wow, that sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?!

But casserole doesn’t have to be boring. I don’t think I’ve ever made one until recently for my supper club, and it was far from boring. So before I get into casseroles, let me digress.

I first heard of a supper club from one of my good friends and former law partners. I admit I was somewhat envious that I wasn’t a “member,” but I’ll save that discussion for my therapist. I was also intrigued. It sounded so grown-up, so sophisticated. I’ve wanted to be in a supper club ever since. 

And so one night about a month or two ago, still waiting for that invitation, I decided to form my own supper club. Maybe I was inspired by Groucho Marx’s famous quip about not joining a club that would have him as a member. And so I posted something on Facebook about starting one. The response was favorable; a charter was drawn up; and I was in business.

Then I got the email.

I forgot to mention that this crazy idea and Facebook post came about two weeks after a very frenetic behind-the-scenes experience for a nonetheless very successful dinner party; yet one that took about two days to clean up (yeah, that one: "Oh the Horror!").  Laura emailed me and asked me, and not without good cause, if I were crazy. “What are you thinking?!” She also stated that she would have no role to play and would certainly not clean up. (I must say that her stance softened a bit; she did both, with a smile – and not a forced one!)

I agreed to host the inaugural supper club dinner. I thought it was only sporting that I do so. But of course, being an attorney by training, I devised a few rules for the club. For one thing, each dinner was to have a theme, which is the responsibility of the host/hostess. Second, the host was in charge of the entree and the wine. Third, everyone else was to bring a dish—potluck—appetizer, side dishes, dessert, etc.

As the host of the initial supper club dinner, I decided that the theme would be “firsts” in the sense that everyone had to make something they had never made before. For me, that would be lamb and, initially, I thought about a roast rack of lamb. But then the memories of that last successful-but-frenetic dinner party came rushing back. So, I decided to keep it simple. I went with moussaka, which has lamb; is something I’d never made before; and is essentially a casserole that could be made ahead and thrown in the oven about an hour before the guests arrived.

Just because it’s a casserole, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy to make.

When I was kid, my friend and later first crush, Kristina Vacalis, whose family was Greek-American would always tell me excitedly whenever her mother made moussaka. She didn’t make it very often, and now I know why. It’s a labor of love.

Moussaka requires a lot—I mean a lot—of slicing of eggplants and potatoes and dicing of onions. And eggplant must be the most high maintenance vegetable out there. After you slice, it must be salted and drained to get the moisture out so it’s not soggy. After it’s salted, you must rinse it and pat it dry and then roast it. I must have roasted about 20lbs of eggplant two nights before the supper club dinner. And then there’s the meat sauce that goes into the moussaka, and then there’s the b├ęchamel sauce that must be made. I’m glad I started two days before the dinner. 

But was it good?  Absolutely!  Despite the work, it’s worth it for a great dish.

And now I have my own supper club. Be careful for what you wish for, though.  Laura has made me promise not to host anything again for a few months.  Except Thanksgiving.  Oh, and except my annual holiday cocktail party.  And, well, given that, maybe there could be a small dinner party on the horizon in January . . . 

Like casseroles, old ways die hard.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Think Different. Cook Different.

A few weeks ago, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I watched the movie Jobs—not the recent one with Michael Fassbender, but the one with Ashton Kutcher. I’ve always been intrigued by Steve Jobs. How could someone so brilliant, so revolutionary, be such a jerk at times?  But then again, do we really want our heroes to be saints? 

The last scene in the movie has Jobs narrating what would become one of Apple’s most famous commercials: Think Different. Interestingly, this version never aired. Jobs’s narration was replaced with Richard Dreyfus. I think Jobs’s version is better. Here's the original commercial

Julia Child and Steve Jobs were also outsiders who thought “different.” Jobs was an orphan who never graduated from college, and tall, gangly Julia Child could hardly boil water at 37, before she began her iconic—though very much an insider’s—cookbook.

There is one scene in the movie Jobs where Steve Jobs complains to Steve Wozniak that the transistors are not straight. Wozniak replies, with a certain degree of frustration, that no one will see them anyway. Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs, on which the movie by the same name is based, examined this in more detail. Jobs really did care and insist that even the parts that no one saw were perfect. 

Of all the cookbooks I own (and I own a lot), Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is still my favorite, even if I cook from it the least.  Even so, there are many times when I simply marvel at the detail and the precision. The recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking require focus and attention to detail. Many of the steps are like the transistors in the Apple I—your guests may not notice them, but you will.

Jobs once said that “[l]ife can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is—everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” I think these words could just have easily come from Julia Child.

So maybe the next time I want to try something new, something different, I’ll engage in a bit of a thought experiment: Steve Jobs and Julia Child in the same kitchen! That would be crazy, but then again, here’s to the crazy ones!