*Well this turned out a bit longer and more meandering than I had intended. Caution ahead – this is how my brain operates during a ‘kitchen event.’ *
It’s a tradition that we try to keep up weekly. Somebody decides to host, a flurry of text messages fly through the air as we figure out who’s coming, what they are bringing, when to show up. It’s family dinner. Not my family of relatives, but my family of friends. Tonight they are coming to my house.
A quick run to the store still not entirely sure how many people are showing up to eat, but I want to make sure everybody has enough to eat. Leeks are in season and I’m itching to make soup. I get home at 5:00 and start the circus, one of my favorite acts: cooking. I’ve got two hours before people start showing up, and I know it’s going to be pushing it. Especially since some of those people are bringing necessary ingredients of this meal.
Crack open a bottle of beer. It’s time to have some fun.
I slice up around six cups worth of leeks and begin sweating them in a large stock pot with butter and oil. I mince an entire head of garlic. Stir the leeks, I don’t want them to caramelize. I peel a bag of potatoes and chop them, setting aside for when the leeks are done. Stir the leeks because if they color my soup will taste burned. Find a carrot in the fridge and give it a quick chop as well. The store didn’t have a big enough can of vegetable stock, so I make some with bullion. It has to be vegetable, at least one of my guests is a vegetarian. The microwave is currently sitting in the dining room, we had to take it down to clean and fix it a few days ago, so I run back and forth between the two rooms as the stock becomes ready. Stir the leeks, add the garlic, wait for the scent of garlic to fill the air. Add the stock, listen to the sizzle as liquid hits hot pan.
Time for the potatoes and carrot. Add water until covered, and stir so that the leeks aren’t all at the bottom of the pot. I don’t want them to burn. Bring to a boil and allow to cook for around an hour. Season as you go – Salt and pepper are a must. Smoked paprika to add a hint of darkness, cumin to wake up the nose, parsley oregano and basil give it a sense of home.
At some point Chris gets home, I move the soup off the stove so that we can re-mount the microwave. After some quick issue-resolution we are done, and the soup is back on the stove. Chop up five squash and slice an onion alongside around twenty mushrooms. Keep in separate bowls, some people don’t like mushrooms and there’s no reason to throw them in with the squash anyway. It will only mess up the moisture content of the squash.
Courtney arrives early, she said she would. Two bottles of white wine in hand, which she puts in the freezer to chill. We chat as I test the potatoes – they’re done. I begin the process of transferring the chunky soup into the blender one batch at a time, lamenting the stick blender that I no longer have. I overfill the blender, when I turn it on I am rewarded with a blast of boiling soup on my hand. Ouch. Transfer the smooth soup to a bowl and repeat. I still manage to overfill it, more hot soup on my skin. In no time I have a smooth soup that is flowing back into the stock pot, with cream being added. Set it to low, and check the seasonings. More pepper, more paprika, a pad of butter to get the mouthfeel right.
I get an ice bath ready and set a pot of water to boil with salt added. Throw two more pans on the stove, I have lots of veggies to cook still. Just then Ben D. shows up with the asparagus I asked him to bring. I throw my chopped onions in one of the pans and stir the soup. I throw in a fistful of cheese. I ask Courtney to plug her iPod into the stereo and play DJ, she always picks good tunes.
It’s 7:00 and people should be arriving in earnest now. The doorbell rings, Claire and Ben O. are here. Claire comes bearing a huge bowl of salad, and in Ben’s hands; a bottle of wine. I give hugs and handshakes, I throw my squash in with the onions, add salt pepper and garlic. Chop the ends off the asparagus and toss in the salted water. Mushrooms go in the last empty pan, medium low heat with a pad of butter. Room mate Perry comes out of his room and joins the burgeoning conversation.
Sam and his girlfriend Jessica are next to arrive, two loaves of french bread come with them. I welcome them in as I stir the squash and asparagus. It’s time to juggle a bit, the trash is full and I ask for somebody to take it out for me. Ben D. is on it and soon I can clear off counter space for bowls and strainers. The asparagus comes out of the water, and right into the waiting ice bath. Back into the freezer for a few minutes. The kitchen gets crowded as people talk while watching me cook. They ask if I need help, I politely decline. This is exactly where I want to be; this is my happy place. Stacy arrives with two cakes for desert. I put a large pan on the stove where the asparagus was, turn it to high and add some oil
Slice the two loaves of bread, ask Courtney to melt me some butter, pull the asparagus out of the ice bath and allow to drain for a moment. Add melted butter to the loaves of bread, Stacy wants one to be garlicky, and so I find the garlic powder, add, and toss all the bread under the broiler. Have Ben stir the soup as I toss the mushrooms and drain some of their accumulated liquid. A glass of wine is presented to me and I take a swig before throwing the asparagus into the now-hot oil. Fire as oil hits flame and finds its way into the pan. Nothing serious, it barely even registers on my radar. Alex calls, he needs directions. I’m not even sure what I tell him as I toss two pans of vegetables.
Stir the squash, taste the soup, laugh at an inappropriate comment, add more pepper. Check the bread, bring out the plates, pull the asparagus out of the pan and cover with foil to keep warm. Pull the bread out when it is browned, burn my fingers as I slice it and place it in bowls. I begin handing finished items to people, knowing they will find their way to the table. The mushrooms and squash are done, the soup is ready, asparagus done and bread on the table.
The burners are off and for the first time in almost three hours I sit. We pull every chair in the house around a table that is too small, we are forced to crowd but we are all comfortable with it. Alex arrives just as we are plating, apparently my directions were good enough. Bowls are passed, plates are filled, and I give everybody a sincere thanks for coming over. Most of them are just back recently from holiday vacations home to see family. I eat as I watch all the interactions, I open another beer and begin to relax as these ten people make the entire evening worthwhile.
The dogs beg for treats, and wiggle their way between peoples legs underneath the table as we take turns talking about what our favorite part of the holiday season was. One at a time around the table we go, finding odd tangent conversations along the way. We joke with each other, we smile, we laugh. The dinner is not about the food, it is about the people here. Sledding, skylines, seeing old friends, dancing, sporting events, all favorite things by different people
I sit back and simply try to soak up all that occurs before me. This is the reason why we do these dinners. The camaraderie, the easy dialog between friends, the shared experience. The plates are emptied and refilled, cleared and cleaned. Ben O. wrestles with Scrappy as the dishwasher is loaded, both of them enjoying the interaction. Eventually there is cake and a full kitchen scrub down. Everybody helps and in no time it is just as pristine as it started the day.
Eventually conversation dies down, tired looks are passed around as people decide to head home. More hugs and handshakes as people make their way out the door. Another successful family dinner in the books.