That first night was epic, California cuisine at its finest: root vegetable mash; green salad with sautéed vegetables and garlic-lime dressing; fish baked in parchment with garlic confit and heirloom tomatoes.
For dessert: baked pears.
Well, you could say it’s not about the food – but that would probably be a lie. The cooking group, now affectionately known as “Gourmet Dinner Night,” started kind of by accident. No one had set out to start a regular thing, but after that first night, with about eight random friends and a few bottles of wine, maybe there was no choice. What we realized was that a few of us really liked cooking, and more importantly, really loved spending a few rare, unhurried hours together.
Now, over a year later, there’s a core group of four – me, Bria, Nupur, and Robin – and a plan that we learned by trial and error. Here’s the recipe:
- We pick a theme. Typically, it has been a type of cuisine. I can remember Italian (more than once), Persian, Indian, Japanese, Southern, Laotian, and traditional American Thanksgiving. Once we did an Iron Chef-style night where the ingredient(s) of choice were mangoes and strawberries – of course, at the height of strawberry season. This meant fish tacos with mango salsa, a green salad with mangoes and strawberries, and strawberry shortcake. What’s coming up? Maybe it will be Mexican or Chinese or all-American – grilled steaks and baked potatoes.
- Cooking together is important. This is not some quick, forgettable meal. We usually get together on weekdays and the evenings involve everyone converging at the host's house around 5 or 6 p.m. People trickle in and open wine and start cooking, crowding the kitchen with gossip and updates and talking shop and politics. We eventually get around to the full meal at 8 or so – though depending on what we’re making, it could be much later, which is why appetizers are so very important.
- The location. We rotate houses, and there are pros and cons to each. Robin has a small kitchen, but his Berkeley hills house offers amazing sunset views of the San Francisco Bay. My house is close to public transportation, Bria’s has a large dining table in kitchen, and Nupur has a huge deck and backyard. I love that we’re comfortable in each others’ houses. We know who has vanilla in their cupboard or who has that big wok we might need.
- The scheduling. Well, this is the crazy part. You take four ultra-busy people who work and go to school and teach or take classes and have girlfriends or boyfriends and travel a lot for work and play and march for peace and fairness, and finding four hours where everyone can make it…well, sometimes it’s a wonder we ever get together at all. Somehow we manage a dinner once or twice a month, not on a regular day of the week or day of the month because we want all of the four of us to be able to make it. Yes, sometimes that’s a challenge. If we were smart, we’d plan the dates two or three at a time, but we’re just not there yet.
- The friends. Right from the start, we realized that cooking for 20 people is a lot different than cooking for 10. We often end up with 5 or 8 people, and the core group makes all the dishes. At first you might think it’s a good idea for everyone who comes to make food, but really, it’s not. The peak for us was the Indian dinner, which involved five main dishes and two kinds of pakoras and dessert – it was just too much, and everyone was crazed instead of relaxed – not to mention, Robin’s kitchen was a disaster. The goal, we’ve come to realize, is not to be exhausted at the end of dinner, but to be relaxed and full (well, maybe stuffed is more like it). So, we invite three or four people, and it changes every time. The guests just bring beverages, and people really like coming to a dinner (as opposed to a potluck) where they don’t have to worry about making something ahead of time and they can just enjoy fancy food – it’s a treat, and a welcome one at the end of a long work day.
The food. The “gourmet” description does not come from expensive ingredients. It comes from dishes made by hand, with care, from fresh, in-season, and often local ingredients. It’s an opportunity to try new recipes or create dishes that seem too involved for an average dinner. This means that for the Persian dinner, which consisted of lamb with pomegranate glaze with grilled vegetables (Robin’s contribution), rice seasoned with nuts and raisins (Bria), and two salads – zucchini and mushroom with a dill yogurt dressing and a tomato cucumber salad (Nupur), I made something not Persian at all. I was in Berkeley Bowl and saw fresh sour cherries – which I have only ever seen in a can – and knew that the dessert would have to be sour cherry pie. And because blackberries were also in season, the dessert became small, individual cherry pies and blackberry pies.
- The patterns. And of course, there are the patterns that emerge. There’s the flurry of emails the days before the dinner where we go back and forth about the menu. And I always make dessert. Robin always makes something epic, like hand-made ravioli from scratch, or malfatti, which you need to start at least a day in advance. When we end up eating at 10 p.m., we usually blame it on him. And then there are the meals that don’t fit the pattern. The post-hike dinner with fresh pesto and beers and guacamole, because that’s what looked good at the store. Or the beach picnic of fancy cheese, concord grapes, and fresh bread. Or the dinner when my mom was visiting from Ohio that involved a turkey roulade and an equally as yummy vegan tofu roulade.
OK. So, we all love food. But really, it’s about friends, and having something that we share together that is not ephemeral and temporary, that is not about passively consuming entertainment that someone else has created for us. It’s about creating connection shared culture in the midst of lives that pull us apart and despite disappearing opportunities to interact outside of families and workplaces.
And all of this talk about locavore and slow food and all that – the Gourmet Dinner has instilled in me that good food is something not just for special occasions. Cooking for the group can take hours when you want it to, but it can also be simple and fast and delicious. The dinners have helped me more consciously enjoy what I am eating, and not waste any more meals on things that don’t taste amazing.