Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The End

I started Meal by Meal in the spring of 2007. The challenge? To throw bi-weekly dinner parties as a tonic for the isolation that ailed me as a new mother. Too broke to hire babysitters and too tired to go out, my husband and I were becoming TV-addicted recluses. We had worked our way through all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and were midway into the follow-up series Angel, when it dawned on me that I knew more about the inner-workings of shows’ characters then I did most of my friends. Working at home and being a part-time homemaker didn’t exactly leave much time for water-cooler conversation, and while I had met nice parents at preschool and daycare, everyone seemed too busy with their New York lives for any real connection.

In a small, mostly unkempt apartment with a sad excuse for a kitchen, I started to cook. I invited friends, acquaintances, even my husband’s colleagues to dinner. I made twenty-five meals in twelve months that first year––and have continued to cook for others, although not as often, in the remaining two. While the dishes didn’t match, the floors weren’t spotless and sometimes ingredients were store-bought, our dinner parties brought a richness and social quality to our lives that may have not happened otherwise. Cooking for people, then sitting down to eat with them, was joyful, intimate, sometimes messy––but mostly gratifying. Plates were passed, wine was poured, and stories unfolded over the course of the evening. Even our children benefited from our parties––they moved through the world with a greater sense of community and belonging. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying the experiment worked!

Over the past few months though, I have found less and less time to update, and less things to update about. The dinner parties have become so ingrained into the ebbs and flows of our lives that there is less left to say about this particular topic. I hope to begin other food-related projects, both as an advocate for better school lunches in the New York City public school system and through my writing. Thank you all for reading about my adventures and now, you can follow me on Twitter, where I'll post food, cooking and NYC parenting tips.

Finally, I leave you with five of my favorite Meal by Meal posts:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mobile Cupcakes

But wait. There's more.

Introducing Cupcake Stop. Mobile Cupcakes in delectable flavors like triple chocolate, red velvet and oreo crumb.

Check out their truck Tuesdays through Sundays:

Day (9:30am - 5pm):
5th Avenue bet. 13th and 14th Street*

Night (6pm - 10pm):
23rd Street bet. 7th and 8th Avenue*

And of course, you can follow them on Twitter!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Miniature Cupcakes In Soho

The cupcake craze continues with Baked By Melissa, a tiny Soho shop--a window really--selling utterly tempting tiny-sized stuffed cupcakes. Perfect for when you just want taste of something sweet without the post-sugar hangover, these baked goods are moist, rich and filled with yummy things like cookie dough, s'mores and peanut butter cups. On Spring Street between Mercer and Broadway.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Downtown Dining A La Cart

For New York City moms and dads out for a day of adventure with their small children, looking for a place to eat can be a daunting affair. Unlike the suburbs, with their vast emporiums of family-friendly "fare" with names like Fudruckers, it is the rare Gotham eatery designed to indulge the screams, cries and various accoutrement (strollers, diaper bags, bottles, changes of clothes, etc) of your little angle. Thankfully, there is another option, particularly during the warmer months. Enter the upscale roach coach.

The latest to join the ranks of these gourmet food trucks is Le Gamin crêpe truck. It serves everything a downtown mama or papa could want--ratatouille crepe anyone?--and what preschooler doesn't love ham and butter on a baguette? My son Sebastien and I spotted the truck on Greene street, just below Prince in Soho last week. According to Maya, one of the truck's cooks, they move locations all the time. To keep up with them, follow them at TWITTER legamintruck, mais oui!

Then, follow up your crepes du jour with an artisinal ice cream from the Van Leeuwen ice cream truck with is also parked on Greene and Prince.

If you are going to Washington Sqaure Park, have a sleeping baby and the patience of Mother Teresa, you might want to attempt the lines for NY Dosa . A southern Indian specialty, dosas crepes made from lentil and rice flours then filled with everything from curried potatoes to fiery hot veggies. The Dosa Man serves only vegan dosas and a few other dishes, all of which are homemade, spicy and incredibly fresh. The food is outstanding; the service and wait-times make you want to kill yourself. Then you pay $6 for the best dosa of your life and you are back again next week.

For more info on street carts around New York City, check out New York Magazine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Wine Tasting Party (Invite the Kids)

The Inspiration
In a tiny fourteenth century apartment in Florence, Steve and I decided to try for a second child. Sydney, our first, was eleven months old, we were broke, and I had a book coming out that would need all of my promotional attention; as my mom would say, we needed another baby like we needed a hole in our collective heads. Still, somehow being in Tuscany convinced us to go against our more rational natures. The Italians, at least in our limited, and probably romantic observations, believed that children, like wine and good food, were meant to be enjoyed within the context of a rich and fully integrated life. In our working class neighborhood, on the wrong side of the Arno, we would hear the chatter of families eating and drinking late into the evenings. When we visited a posh seaside resort, it was the same thing; whole families out eating pizza in the large squares and strolling the streets until midnight. I never got the sense of the rampant consumerist kid culture that exists here, where children have their own TV shows, clothing, bath towels, magazines and restaurants. Instead I witnessed children and parents, aunts and uncles, friends and relatives spending time together, enjoying the simple pleasures of food and wine with other families.

Besides the gift of my second son Sebastien, born nine months after we returned, Italy left me with a desire to resist seeing and relating to my children as completely separate and in need of their own distinct culture. Instead Steve and I attempt to share our passions with the kids and have from a very young age, as they contribute to us. That means we spend a lot of time at the table, they accompany me to the farmer’s market and help prepare food; while we watch “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” with them and take an active interest in their interests.

Because of this belief, we spend much of our free time with friends and other families, eating, drinking, talking, picnicking in the park. Sometimes the kids eat with us, sometimes separately. Sometimes they watch a movie in the other room—but more to the point, we are all together, the get a real sense of community and no one has to pay for a babysitter.

A Wine Tasting

Case in point, last Friday, I hosted a wine tasting for my Steve, Kimberly and Ward and Sue, plus kids (5 in all).

Ward and Sue brought dried soppresatta and this incredible Roomano from Murray’s Cheeses and an olive loaf from Amy’s Breads. Kimberly made a smooth guacamole, with lime, onions and chopped cilantro. I put outside some pita and hummus and a few cheeses I had in the fridge. A simple meal of grazing. A frozen pizza from Fresh Direct was heated up later in the evening for the children and bowls of fresh pineapple sufficed for their dessert.

The Wines
I bought the following white wines, all which were under $20, because quite frankly, it’s all I could afford. Each one demonstrated the very different styles of Chardonnay.

Rully, Sebastien Rous 2007

This French Chardonnay is judiciously, lightly, subtly aged in oak. The result is a very well balanced wine with good acidity. Partial to wines with a French sensibility, with character and personality—a sense of terroir if you will, Steve loved this wine.

Bourgogne Blanc, Clotilde Davenne - 2007

This French Chardonnay from Burgundy is not aged in oak but steel; nothing at all like the rich, buttery California Chardonnays. And yet, it still has a softness and warmth to it. It was Kimberly’s favorite.

Bianco, Cantina Zaccagnini – 2007
OK, so I cheated a little bit here with this white wine blend from central Italy's Abruzzo region. It actually contains Chardonnay, Riesling and Trebbiano grapes, so it’s not a pure varietal, but it is unoaked. With notes of juicy nectarines, yellow plums and honey it’s an enjoyable glass to have on its own or with chicken or fish. I am a huge fan of this wine—it’s complexity belies its 14.99 price tag.

Chardonnay, Wyatt – 2007
A remarkably well-balanced California Chardonnay—particularly at this price-point (I got my bottle from Astor Wines for $11.99), with some oak, but not too much. Notes of tropical fruit dominate. I was surprised at how much I liked this wine.

The Verdict
The evening went by smoothly, without any drama from the kids and the grown-ups had a merry old time (the wine didn’t hurt). I really do believe children benefit from celebrating with adults around the simple pleasures of the table--and that when you do this, the kids feel connected to their community in a deep and meaningful way. Whether it’s on a picturesque 14th century Florentine terrace or in a 1970’s modernist tower in the middle of New York City, the ancient ritual of breaking bread together still matters.

A Few Ideas for Organizing Your Own Wine Tasting

1. Start early, say 5:30, to allow everyone ample time to eat, taste and converse—and still get the kids home at a reasonable hour. Limit the number of invites to five adults and five children. Any more and you might need more than a glass of wine to make it through the evening.

2. Choose one varietal wine to focus on. Chardonnay, Merlot or Pinot Noir are all good choices, but even lesser known grapes could work. Select three to four bottles of your grape, spanning across two or three different countries. I would also go for wines that are similar in price, so that the differences you taste are real—not just a matter of quality.

3. Brush up on some basic facts about the grape and place the wine comes from. Even if you can’t find info on your particular bottle, books like The Wine Bible offers great insight into wine-producing regions all over the world. Have a little something to say on each wine and invite your guests to add their own thoughts.

4. Serve both adult-friendly and kid-friendly food. Even if your own children are adventurous, the other kids might not be. Carrot sticks, chicken fingers, bread and cheese are easy options. For the adults, cheeses, crudite and other finger foods can be prepped ahead of time, leaving you free to do the pouring.

5. Have a few activities for the kids to do that don’t require adult supervision—coloring books and some packets of crayons should suffice, or a special DVD that they could watch together in the next room could work.

6. Wait to start the tasting until the children have settled in, so you have a good thirty minutes to focus on the wine.

7. Print out a list of the wines you are serving to guests, along with a pencil or pen so that they can take notes.

8. Introduce each wine in a simple fashion ie, “This Merlot is from Chile, which is known for producing red wine at a great price,” and allow everyone to taste and comment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jean Railla Talks about Underground Supper Clubs on NPR's Word of Mouth

I spoke about Underground Supper Clubs today on NPR's super-cool show Word of Mouth.

Listen to the mp3 version here.

Special thanks to Heather from One Big Table and Lady Rogue from rogueApron for sharing their brilliance and passions with me.

Monday, May 25, 2009

rogueApron: An Interview with the Host of Atlanta's Most Popular Supper Club

In searching out supper clubs around the country, I kept coming across articles and blogs talking about rogueApron, a culinary speakeasy based in Atlanta. I contacted the head of this project for a little Q & A. Her responses are very thoughtful and serve as a great model for anyone else out there looking to start their own supper club.

How long have you been doing rogueApron?
Our first rogueApron dinner was St. Patrick's Day 2008. We work with East Atlanta Brewery, pairing local beers crafted especially for our menus. Our first menu was EAB stout-cured corned beef, traditional mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables and the like. Our 30 person dinner featured half friends, and half strangers ... I still have no idea how they found out about us, since we had just a small website at the time. The tornado that ravaged downtown and East Atlanta in '08 just happened to hit the day before the dinner ... we climbed through downed power lines and felled trees in the rain to ice down our precious corned beef. We postponed the dinner a day, and all is well. Now our mailing list is over 1,500 people, and dinners book within minutes ... it's been a remarkable journey, meeting some really great people.

What was the impetus?
rogueApron is a child of the recession in many ways - like many people, we had a good idea, but never the time and space to make it happen. But when circumstances and economies change, all of a sudden a zany idea makes a lot more sense than climbing a ladder that might not exist by the time you get to the top of it.
The motivations are complex and sometimes hard to divine: a love of food and beer, the desire to connect strangers over a good meal and build community, nerdy-fun surprises and puns. Unlike many underground "restaurants" in the States, our dinners are crowdsourced and staffed entirely by volunteers, many of whom meet us for the first time when they show up at a location, knife in hand, ready to take on prep for the day. Our menus are thematic - like the Soup Line which heralded the crash of the stock market in October ... our guests met up in a public park, empty bowl in hand. We also have the privilege of working closely with Georgia farmers - our last event was a workday at a farm, where guests helped clear fields of debris before tucking into a picnic lunch.
Local food means better ingredients for our dinners, but we also hope that it can serve as an introduction to foodsystems for our guests. We truly believe in severing the commercial relationship between cook and guest; where impersonal plates are pumped out factory-style for people you never see.
The unbelievable response of the Atlanta community has lead to several spin-off projects with common threads; building local economies and changing foodsystems. We run an entrepreneur/DIY network (Lady Rogue Business Network (ladyroguebiz.ning.com), a Chef to School program where we cook local vegetables with kids in developing neighborhoods, volunteer on a Georgia Organics board (cultivateATL.tumblr.com), and get involved with fun conceptual food events, like Free Pie (free-pie.org).

What's the connection between underground supper clubs and the restaurant world?
I'm sure that the answer to this question will vary greatly depending on who you speak to. Each supperclub is unique; reflecting the ideas and passions of the organizer/chefs and the community that they live in. Cooking food for people who gather around in a communal atmosphere is ancient - it's the modern restaurant that's a relative artifice. Restaurants can be amazing places - but they can also be table-turning SYSCO factories, with bitter, harried servers, dirty, cussing line cooks just hoping to get through the rush and to their beer - guests can be demanding, petty tyrants with ridiculous demands.
Supperclubs are grassroots alternatives, whatever their motivations, and the difference between codified establishments with EBITDA margins and art forms is profound.

What are the people like who come to your events? Was it hard for people to "get" it at first?
We are lucky that the rogueApron community is uniformly awesome. Something about the process of choosing a dining adventure and being open-minded about what and where you are going to eat serves as a funnel for creatives - our guests are from all age ranges and walks of life, but all are passionate about their lives and eager for experiences.
We have a pretty comprehensive website, with a lot of information on events, and we try to keep it as up-to-date as possible whenever someone asks a question we haven't heard before. But yes, we occasionally get questions from people who are still trying to wrap their heads around the concept.

I noticed on your web site that you accept donations or people can help out? Are you trying to democratize good food?
Of course! Accessibility is a strong political tenant of rogueApron. We accept cash donations towards food costs, but we never suggest more than $20 or $30 (depending on the menu). We have folks who do not give donations as well. For people who don't have the cash, we have all kinds of volunteer opportunities ... but our volunteers tend to be food-loving folks who love to cook for others. It's our sincere hope that everyone feels like they would be welcome at a dinner.

Do you consider what you do political in a small "p" sort of way, of course?
I suppose I've hinted at this above, but yes. A shared meal is a powerful connector of people - our guests build friendships, find lovers, make business connections, have spontaneous conversations, and find themselves involved in their community in new ways. Providing a space for that is considered political in our current culture.

How many people come to each event?
The size of the event varies according to the venue; usually anywhere from 50-150 people. (Really, we cook for 150 in a noncommercial kitchen. It's significantly harder that way :)

Do you make any profit?
rogueApron is a project; no one personally profits from the dinners. Our rA piggy bank helps us to invest in things like folding tables and silverware. Here's a little more about the donations system: http://rogueapron.wordpress.com/events/what-your-donation-goes-towards/

What kind of training do you have.
I do not have formal training; however I do cook for a living. I identify as a cook - not a chef.

Friday, May 22, 2009

I Heart Sriracha!

Do you know and love Sriracha hot sauce? If not, get thee to a store and pick up some. Tasty, spicy, sweet, umami-rific joy. It's like ketchup for foodies. Plus it comes in a squeeze bottle and who can resist the rooster on the package?

Uses and Recipe Ideas

Like many people, Steve and I use it like ketchup, especially on hamburgers. A quarter-sized dollop on a brioche roll, along with sliced red onion and romaine lettuce makes an unbelievably tasty burger. The best I've ever tasted.

The NY Times has a story on it this special sauce, along with some interesting recipes for it including Rice Cracker Crusted Tuna With Spicy Citrus Sauce.

The blog White on Rice posts a recipe for making your own Sriracha. Seems like a lot of work, but I admire their DIY spirit.

Perhaps not the most mouth-watering of ideas, another blog mixes Sriracha into bread dough for a Spicy Sriracha Bread.

And finally The Washington Post publishes a recipe for Sriracha-spiked Barbecue Sauce, which I will definitely make this this summer when we start smoking meats again.

How do you use the sauce?


Believe it or not, groups of people in cities like Belfast, Maine, and Atlanta Georgia, are baking up pies, then going out into the public and giving away slices for free. Want to join the movement? Find recipes, flyer ideas and other inspiration at the free pie web site.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Supper Clubs Around the Country

The recent restaurant take-over by occasional and underground supper clubs is the most exciting thing to happen to food and dining in decades. Discover the magic for yourself, or better yet, start your own. Below, I have started a list of supper clubs and will continue to add to it.

: Primers on underground dining
Deep Dish Dreams
Ghetto Gourmet
Solo Dining

Atlanta, GA
Rogue Apron

Austin, TX
Supper Underground

Boston, MA

New York City
The Whisk & Ladle

Portland, OR
Plate & Pitchfork

Sacramento, CA
The Hidden Kitchen

San Francisco
Cook With James

Seattle, WA
Gypsy Dinners

If you host an underground supper club or know of one, or are starting one, please let me know and I'll write about it at Meal by Meal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

One Big Table: An Underground Supper Club

Photo by Jacob Pritchard

A few weeks ago while waiting for dinner in an industrial Bushwick loft, I ordered a White Wasp from a nervous twenty-three year old guy at a makeshift bar. The cocktail, which contained cognac, honey water, and half and half, was not the best drink. It was served in a plastic cup; a cocktail should always be presented in a proper glass. Drinks should also be served very, very cold—and this was not. I’m not sure all the ingredients melded together the way they should—the cream felt, well, too creamy, the honey too sweet. The White Wasp was however, an interesting use of local ingredients and a brave attempt at creative cocktailing—something few restaurateurs would dare in this economy. More importantly, it set the pace for what would be a memorable evening at One Big Table, an underground supper club in Brooklyn.

One Big Table is the brainchild of Heather (last name excluded for legal reasons), a statuesque and tattooed twenty-five year old nanny and amateur chef. Heather opens up her apartment once a month to twelve or so diners. For forty dollars, guests receive the pleasure of a four-course meal, wine and entertainment. The food is local, mostly organic and the wine is simple but plentiful. Heather joins a growing movement of gastronomes who are taking back food culture from the staid and pricey world of restaurants and bringing a DIY approach to eating and community.

At first, I admit, it was almost too intimate to stand in Heather’s home and watch her race around, given that i had never met her until this evening. But the closeness also built a sort of excitement, a mystery––what will happen next? What are the rules? Less formal than a restaurant but not as relaxed as a dinner party, supper clubs skate a fine-line between private and public spheres. The blurred boundary entices.

For the first thirty minutes or so, my cohorts Steve, Kimberly and I made jilted conversation with the other guests, a group of strangers a decade younger than us. Steve recognized someone from Think Coffee. I bummed a cigarette from Jon Bozeman, a folk singer. We started to loosen up as the hors d'oeuvres arrived. The collard leaves stuffed with cheese grits were a playful and utterly delicious take on stuffed grape leaves and the black-eyed pea hummus on cornbread was homey and satisfying.

Finally dinner was served and everyone sat down at a simple table adorned with tulips in glass milk bottles. There were some really beautiful moments with the food–– the roasted Jerusalem artichoke salad was lovely, the pea shoots offering an ideal accompaniment to the crunchy sweetness of the tubers. The bread pudding was perfectly rich and spotted with bittersweet dark chocolate. The pheasant, on the other hand, was tough and stringy. And the carrot soup was too heavy; the freshness of the vegetables was lost in the cream. But, strangely, even for such a critical and picky eater as myself, it didn’t matter.

At One Big Table, it’s not that the food is beside the point—it is ethically sourced, lovingly cooked and creatively put-together, but more that the meal is not separate from the whole experience. Not to sound overly taken with Heather, which I am by the way, but eating at someone’s home, and knowing that they’ve been cooking for days, for you, is affecting in a different way than eating at a restaurant. It’s like going to a friend’s house for dinner. If one dish doesn’t work out, who cares? You forgive them in a way you would never a chef, particularly if you are paying forty dollars for an entrée, let alone the rest of the meal. Restaurateurs are out to make money; Heather is trying to break even. For her, the supper club is an experiment in bringing people together and giving back. Her earnest and giving nature infuses the evening.

After three hours at the table and several bottles of wine, everyone loosened up. Kimberly and I tried to talk Jon into becoming a nanny. Steve met a young graduate student studying Cuban history. Someone rolled a joint. Coffee was served. Brian Peck and Jon Bozeman sang sweet folk songs while VJ Sarah played beautiful ambient video clips. The mood was open and bohemian in a 1970’s Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell kind of way. Us forty-ish folks were smitten and didn’t get home until two am, a rarity. We all agreed—the best dining experience we’ve had in recent history.