Food Connects….Part 2

As Jeff and I sat in church this morning I was feeling particularly blessed.  I am a little embarrassed to admit that my mind was wandering a bit and that after glancing at who was sitting near me I started making notes on my service outline that had nothing to do with the message.

[I will apologize right here to Pastor Shawn. He preached a great sermon about involving God in our personal finances and I really was listening to the message.  In addition to the notes I took that had nothing to do with the message, I really did take notes that were pertinent to the sermon; it’s just that my mind was working overtime….yeah, working overtime.  It’s true that women can multitask! ]

Anyway….at some point I realized that Jeff and I were surrounded on three sides by other couples who we are so fortunate to count as friends.  I couldn’t help my mind from reaching back to what I had been mulling over all day Friday – the idea that food connects. I realized that we have shared meals with all these couples and, if memory serves, we’ve shared one particular meal with all of them.  It’s not a fancy meal by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one that is meaningful for several reasons.

We first had Taco Soup on our missions trip to Ecuador in 2008.  The last night of our trip, the full-time missionaries with whom we were serving invited our team over to their home in Quito for dinner.  They made Taco Soup.  After spending days eating in unfamiliar places and sometimes not really knowing for sure what we were having, the soup was a wonderful tonic – warm and comforting. We ate and talked and connected over the soup and were so grateful to the Brown’s for their hospitality.  Before we left, we asked for the recipe.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made Taco Soup since we returned to the states, but I can tell you it is ALWAYS for a crowd, there’s always lots of laughter, and invariably someone always asks for the recipe.  I always triple the recipe and make it in a huge, heavy yellow pot. I’ve even loaned the pot to a friend so that she could make the soup for a crowd too!

We served Taco Soup at our small group meeting the night before our friend, Laura (one of the folks sitting near us at church this morning), went into labor with her first baby.  We served it several times when Jeff and I have taught a finance class to premarital couples at church.  We served it to our ministry team when we had training on how to counsel people about their finances. We made it when we went on vacation with my family over Christmas in 2010. Taco soup has been like an old friend to us.

Of course, thinking about Taco Soup got me to thinking about other food / food traditions we have had at small group meetings.    Before she moved away, our good friend Bev used to make the most amazing Banana Pudding when there was a special occasion.  She got the recipe from her mother-in-law and all of us in our group are indebted to said mother-in-law for her generosity.  Our friends Laura and Aaron, who were newly married and who are so careful and smart with their money, used to bring Doritos each week.  Now, that may not sound like a big deal – but each week they’d bring a new flavor and everyone looked forward to the “Doritos du Jour.”  Until that year, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of Doritos! My personal favorite was the cheeseburger flavored!

For Valentine’s Day this year, my friend Lu and I worked together to create an unforgettable 5 course meal for the 14 people in our small group.  She and I not only made the food, but we also made a beautiful card that served as a place marker for each couple. Inside the card was the printed menu for our ‘Story of the Heart’ dinner.  To continue the theme we created a framed, hand-calligraphed favor for each couple to take home.  It read, “every heart has a story to tell” and included a three-dimensional heart with Bible verses about love printed on it.  I cannot tell you whether Lu and I had more fun getting to know one another while working together on this labor of love or having dinner with the group.  Both were incredible times of connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So if you love cooking, eating and entertaining as much as I do, or if you simply enjoy being a gracious guest; my sincerest hope for you is that you have many of your own stories of food as a connector.  Perhaps memories of meals you’ve shared with friends or memories that warm your heart when you make a recipe that’s been shared with you by a friend or family member.  After all, every heart (and every recipe) has a story to tell!

Taco Soup

1 lb. ground beef
2 cans diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 cans corn, with liquid
2 cans chili beans, with liquid
1 pkg taco seasoning
________

Tortilla chips
Sour cream
Shredded cheddar cheese

  1. Brown ground beef.  Drain and return to pot.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
  3. Simmer for at least 20 minutes.
  4. Crush a handful of tortilla chips in the bottom of a bowl.
  5. Ladle soup over chips.
  6. Top with shredded cheese and sour cream as desired.
  7. Enjoy!!!

Note:  Taco Soup freezes well if you make too much!

“And”, “But”, and “Or”, They’ll Get You Pretty Far

This morning I awoke with two words rattling around my brain – food connects.  I kept turning them over and over, sort of chewing on them; but it wasn’t until I had a cup of coffee that I really started thinking about the idea.  When I did, the first thing that popped into my head was a little ditty I had heard on TV a million times when I was growing up.  It goes a little something like this:

“Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Hooking up words and phrases and clauses.  Conjunction junction, how’s that function? I’ve got three favorite cars that get most of my job done….”

If you’re near my age, you’ll probably have the tune stuck in your head for hours after you read this and you’ll struggle to remember all the words.  Never fear, just click this link to a YouTube video with lyrics!

But I digress.  Food DOES connect.  First date?  Dinner and a movie.  Catch up with friends?  Let’s do lunch.  Crisis?  People bring food.  Engagement?  Engagement party.  Marriage?  Wedding reception.  Funeral?  You get the idea.  People connect over food.  Food is part of our comfort, our celebrations, and our grief.

Family traditions often include food.  In my family, one of my favorite traditions is Christmas Eve dinner.  We do our version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  Talk about food!  And when I was young and we lived closer to my extended family not only did we eat at home on the holidays, afterward we visited extended family and ate some more.

Food can even penetrate a language barrier.  Several years ago Jeff and I travelled to Ecuador on a missions trip with our church.  Fortunately for Jeff, when he was in high school he took several years of Spanish.  I did not. As a result I was often frustrated during the trip – wanting to connect with people, but having to wait for a translator to help.  It was interesting though, that at meal time the barrier didn’t seem quite so high.  Everyone gathered together at the table and communication somehow seemed simpler. I don’t know if it was because the bilingual people were all in one place or because everyone relaxed when the food was served and had something other than what made us different to concentrate on.  The food was something that made us the same – the need for nourishment – the desire to enjoy the meal and the company.  Webster’s Dictionary defines FELLOWSHIP as “the companionship of individuals in a congenial atmosphere and on equal terms.”  That is what our shared meals provided – a level playing field.

So food connects us to people we love and even to strangers.  It can also connect us to memories.  How many times have you smelled something – cinnamon buns, bread baking, hot buttered mashed potatoes – that made you flash to a childhood memory?  Now I don’t know all the science behind it. Words like “olfactory,” “amygdala,” and “hippocampus” are best left to science class if you ask me.  But I do know that the smell of food can make me think of a specific event or a particular person.

It’s simple.  Food connects.

Well, I’ve got to run.  I’m meeting a friend I haven’t hung out with in a while.  We’re reconnecting…over sushi and a movie!

No “Gradzilla” Moments

I had the pleasure of catering a party for my friends’ daugher who recently graduated from nursing school.  The experience was great from start to finish.  I realize this is a rarity, but there were no “gradzilla” moments, no last minute menu changes, no hard to find ingredients, no delays or snags of any kind.  I am still thanking God for this amazing grace!

The process started with the invitations.  The grad had a favorite color scheme and wanted something unique.  Unable to find just the right thing, I decided to make a sample invite and see if she liked it – and boy did she – so I went quickly into production mode and got them out on time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The menu was set and I began work, with the help of a very experienced and dedicated sous chef, my mom!  I couldn’t have done it without her help – she kept the sink free of dishes and reminded me to take an occasional break!

We worked for the entire week before the party making what we could ahead of time and constantly reworking the timeline to ensure that everything went off without a hitch the day of the party.  The party was on a Saturday; so I created a daily calendar (beginning the Monday before) of all the tasks that had to be accomplished – not just making food, but ensuring we had selected the proper serving platters, purchasing flowers/herbs for the buffet, making the iced teas, ironing tablecloths (a quick rant – please, please iron the tablecloth and napkins if you are using linens – don’t set a table that looks like someone slept on it overnight!!!), etc.

The day of the party we had a few last-minute details to attend to in the morning.  We had a hearty breakfast and then went to set up.  Below are a few photos of the buffet and a list of what was on the menu  – those of you with a keen eye will notice that the menu item cards on the buffet match the invitations.  Please visit my Photo Gallery for all the beautiful photos of the event, which were taken by the grad, Brianna Wilbur.  In addition to being a new nurse, Bri is also a wonderfully talented photographer.  Please visit her blog to see more of her work.

Southern Sweet Tea & Herbal Iced Tea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crudite Platter (Served with Caramelied Onion Dip)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almond Joy Cupcakes

 

 

 

 

 

 

The full menu included:

  • Southern Sweet Tea & Herbal Iced Tea
  • Crudite Platter w/ Caramelized Onion Dip
  • Marinated Cheese w/ Crackers
  • Spinach Balls
  • Meatball Duo – Chicken Wing Meatballs & Spicy Sesame Meatballs
  • Sundried Tomato & Smoked Cheddar in Phyllo
  • Artichoke, Bacon & Goat Cheese Tart
  • Fruit Skewers w/ Brown Sugar Sour Cream Dip
  • Amond Joy Cupcakes & Pumpkin Cupcakes w/ Cinnamon Icing

What a pleasure it was for me to cater this party.  It allowed me to share my love of cooking and entertaining with others and to spend time – lots of time – in the kitchen with my mom. What could be better than that?

A Treat for All the Senses

This afternoon I was in the basement looking for canning supplies and jars when my self-diagnosed A.D.D. got the best of me, which happens quite often.  I rarely start a task without being distracted by something else….in fact, I think that’s the reason I could never clean my room in less than 2 days when I was a kid!

I was walking around the basement looking at boxes that should have been unpacked by now – seeing as we moved into this house over three years ago – and a box with “Jan College” written on the side caught my eye.  Inside I found something that perhaps I should have considered foreshadowing many years ago….a writing assignment from my English Comp 101 class, the subject of which was cooking!

If you will indulge me, I’ll share this writing entitled ‘A Treat for All the Senses’ from February 20, 1999:

“Cooking is not simply a hobby for me, it is a passion.  I do not just use cookbooks, I pore over them like the lover of literature reads the finest novels.  I have often thought about becoming a professional chef – in fact, the idea of attending the Culinary Institute of America thrills me each Saturday when I watch cooking shows on PBS; but I wonder, if I had to cook, is it likely that I would not want to cook?  I believe the reason I enjoy cooking so much is that this is a relaxing activity that affects all my senses.

The repetition of chopping and stirring helps to relax me.  They are activities that allow me to focus on what I am doing and forget about the problems of the day.  As I write this, I can easily recall the feeling of my arm going methodically in circles or figure-eights around a pan in which onions are sizzling in butter. Some days the sounds of the kitchen are more melodious to me than Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Pachelbel’s Canon in D.  As I stir the onions, which I know will become the color of sweet caramel, their wonderful aroma wafts up through the air into my expectant nostrils as surely as the scent of the lilacs in spring.  However, this is just the beginning.

As much as I enjoy the actual preparation of the food, the presentation of the meal I have labored over is also important to me.  I do not merely put the food onto the plate; I arrange it as carefully as the artist places paints on canvas.  I pay close attention to the contrast of colors and textures, the arrangements of shapes, the height of the finished product and the placement of the final touch – the garnish.  I know that seeing a well-presented plate delights the eye and gets the mouth watering.  Good presentation is as important as good taste.

In my opinion, cooking does not stop when the food is on the plate.  It also includes the ambiance of the dining room, the music played during dinner, the wine served and the company in which the meal is eaten.  Each of these things, if well planned, can add to the culinary experience.  Generally, when I cook for guests, I use my finest china and linen napkins.  I take great care when setting the table.  I usually use candles and something from nature – whether it be flowers in spring and summer, pine boughs in winter or leaves in autumn – to set the mood.  I play music that is soothing and turn the lights so that people can see their plates, but do not feel as though they are in an interrogation room.  When everything is ready, I serve the dishes I created.

Many people think that taste is the only thing to take into consideration when cooking.  I, on the other hand, believe that cooking affects the senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – not only of those people who eat the food, but also of those who have prepared it.  Cooking is more than a task to me, it is a delightful experience that allows me to relax and fills up my senses.”

Reading the comments of my long ago professor gives me hope that I can use this blog and my love of food to communicate with people and, in some cases, bring back memories for the reader.  The professor wrote, “You’ve described fine dining.  I miss that a lot from my mother…a lot of good food, a tablecloth, candles.  You are so right.  Your guests are very fortunate.”

As I read over my words, I realize that a few things have changed.  It’s not so important to use my finest china any more – I have aged a bit and understand that sometimes the bumps and dents of everyday life add character that the finest china cannot.  The lights are a little brighter during a meal because Jeff and I don’t see as well as we used to in dim lighting.  And ever since my mom set her napkin on fire during Easter dinner, I am more careful with the candles.

I also realize that some things have not changed….my passion for cooking, eating and entertaining, the joy I get from friends and family around the table, and the way I use food to express love to and serve others.

Smoke from a Distant Fire!

No this is not a review of 70’s music – it’s a recap of a great meal….So I got an email this morning from my husband, Jeff.  Attached were some pictures from his iPhone of a fantastic meal we ate this past Sunday with friends and I just had to share them.

Some cooking, eating and entertaining is planned in advance and some is spur of the moment.  And although I am not a good spur of the moment entertainer, I appreciate those who are and love the serendipitous feeling of being included in such events.  We got a call on Sunday from our friends Jeff and Holly F. saying “Jenny and Tom (Holly’s sister and brother-in-law) are here.  We have a brisket in the smoker and the kids are all playing, do you want to join us for dinner?”

Well, these are some amazing people – the kind whose company you just don’t pass up, and did someone say “brisket” and “smoker” in the same sentence?  Of course we went.  The only question was what to bring to contribute to the meal.

I remembered a recipe I had recently found for Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad from Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa.  This being the end of summer, which means our garden is littered with tomatoes, made the decision a no brainer.  Jeff and I worked together on the recipe and during the process of slow roasting the tomatoes our house smelled incredible.  I really wish there was such a thing as “smellavision” because it was an aroma that real foodies would love to share.

As I’m reliving the night in my brain, I am asking myself, “What are the things that made it such a memorable meal?”  The answers include:

  • Amazing friends who share your love of truly good food
  • Spontaneity
  • Good beer and wine
  • A lot of laughs
  • A lively atmosphere
  • Incredible food – smoked brisket, roasted tomato Caprese salad, and oil/salt rubbed roasted potatoes

The brisket was divine……it had been prepared with a simple rub of olive oil, salt and pepper and smoked for several hours.  The resulting smoke ring was a sight to behold.  Thanks, Tom! Please remember the photos were taken with my husband’s iPhone, not in a studio!

The Caprese salad was delicious – a keeper of a recipe as far as I am concerned.  The only change I made was rather than putting whole basil leaves in the salad, I made a fresh pesto for the side – you have to think creatively when kids are involved.  And in my honest opinion, pesto flavors a Caprese salad better than individual leaves of basil.  You can schmear it around and get the basil flavor throughout the salad rather than in isolated pieces.

We dug into the meal and I noticed there was not much talking going on – always a sign of good food.  The conversation we were having was mostly about how good everything was.  We hit a point near the end of the meal when there was only one slice of tomato and one piece of mozzerella left on the platter and just a few slices of brisket remained.  You know that stage, where everyone wants to take the last serving, but doesn’t want to look like a pig. In some company this would have been awkward, but not with these friends – one of us proudly took the last of the Caprese salad while another took a slice of brisket and dragged it through the “dressing’ that remained on the Caprese platter – a brilliant idea.  The next thing we knew, we were all picking up one last slice of brisket with our fingers and following suit!  Mmm mmm mmm.

The meal proved that not all cooking, eating and entertaining has to be stuffy.  Sometimes a last minute invitation and eating with your fingers is the finest dining around!!!

Welcome!

What an exciting time for me – this is my first blog post – EVER. The purpose of this blog is to share my passion for food. I have included an ‘About Me‘ page and don’t want to bore you with redundancy so I will share a bit more about my history with food that I did not include on that page.

For as long as I can remember I have enjoyed watching cooking shows (way back to the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child and up through today’s bevy of shows available on the Food Network and other cooking-specific channels).

I read cookbooks as though they are novels – I am not simply looking for recipes, but am learning about the history of the author and his/her relationship with food. I love the commentary and explanation that comes with the recipe almost as much as the recipe itself. And magazines – oh, how I love cooking magazines! In fact, for the last several years on my birthday my husband has awakened me with current editions of some of my favorites – Bon Appétit, Cooking Light, La Cucina Italiana, Food Network Magazine, to name a few – and with a great cup of coffee. He knows I will be completely immersed for hours, but he also knows he will reap what he has sown.

I also get an immense satisfaction from devising a theme and tinkering with the table setting when I entertain, which is now called tablescaping. I’m not sure how I feel about that term – it sounds so industrial to me – but it’s widely used so I’ll go with the flow. I simply like making people feel special when they come to dinner at my table. I enjoy using different dishes and linens I have collected over time, cutting flowers and herbs from my yard to use as centerpieces, and/or arranging a buffet with height, color and texture. I enjoy the process of making little cards in different shapes, colors and sizes that announce each dish.  I often spend as much time on decorating the table as I do on the menu and food. Serving others in this way fills my spirit!

I hope you will check back with me often to see how my blog is growing and changing.  I welcome your feedback – it will help me get to know you better and share my passion with you!