Opa! (Boomer): A Dinner Party Reimagined

They say that the dinner party is dead. Something else that Millennials have killed along with golf and casual dining establishments. As a HungryGinger, I will surely not shed a tear when and if places like TGI Fridays and Outback Steakhouse go under, but I take exception to the idea that the dinner party will share their fate. In fact, I believe that, unlike many relics of our baby boomer parent’s lives, the dinner party is adapting to become a new and possibly better expression of itself. Alison Roman is throwing casual get-togethers in her Brooklyn apartment and Instagramming the shit out of it. Hell, she even wrote an entire cookbook around the idea. I’m sold. 

The dinner party does not have to be a three course affair beginning with bruschetta and ending with Baked Alaska (though it certainly could – there are no rules!). It can be a series of small plates, snacks and dips with some fun veggies – watermelon radish anyone? Or it can be a themed potluck where everyone also brings a bottle of wine (and takes a Lyft home). As I have negotiated my way to my mid thirties, the dinner party has become more and more appealing. I long for the structure of a sitdown gathering with friends, but don’t necessarily need to be burdened with the responsibility for several courses. I’m paying into social security that will be bankrupt when I am old, so I should be able to do damn well what I please when it comes to dinner. It is this feeling (and several drunken non-dinner party nights with friends) that gave rise to the first annual Greek Solstice Cook-a-thon.

At times of merriment, a friend (who is Greek) and I, would wax poetic about Greek food. We would discuss the finer points of Avgolemono soup (when IS the best time to add the egg enrichment?) and baklava (so. many. layers.) and tell ourselves that sometime soon, we would have a Greek themed dinner party and he would teach me and our friends his ya-ya’s secrets. Finally, this year, around about the Summer Solstice, we followed through. There were eight people in total which is enough people for a lively gathering but not so many that the party could potentially separate into groups. 

 

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About a week out, the Greek friend (Stevie) posted some classic recipes that he was thinking of making and we divided the recipes for the mains between the two of us. Other attendees took on appetizers and dessert (which could be made ahead of time) and we picked a dish that everyone could help make the day of – Spanakopita!

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We did a lot of pre-prep so that when we all got together, we weren’t stuck in the kitchen instead of socializing. I also did a signature cocktail that could be mixed ahead of time so that we had something tasty to drink while we cooked.

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The Grapevine:
4 cups white grapejuice
1 cup vodka
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tsp Grenadine
*Thanks NYT Cooking Community Facebook Group for the recipe!**

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And a party isn’t a party without some appetizers to go with the drinks (we don’t want to be completely smashed for the meal). My friend Louisa, fellow blogger and foodaphile made a delicious garlic dip made with potatoes and homemade pita chips.

 

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Once everyone arrived, we pulled the thawed phyllo dough out from the fridge along with the spanakopita filling I had made the night before (in an 11pm frenzy). Stevie showed us how much filling to use (less than you would think) and how to fold and seal the tiny packages of deliciousness. We took turns filling and folding and filling and folding. Everyone did a round and all improved so that by the end, we were practically pros. Yaya would have been proud! 

 

Then into the oven they went. Additional dishes including chicken rolls, Keftethes or Greek Meatballs, Green bean casserole and baked fish with raisins. And of course a greek salad with crisp cucumbers, olives, feta and tomato. This was a true feast and by the time we got to the baklava (purchased from a local Greek establishment…we aren’t masochists), we were stuffed and everyone got some leftovers to take home. Next time, I will definitely provide To Go containers for everyone so that we don’t have to play tupperware roulette.

 

Overall the experience was great because it was more participatory than a traditional dinner party. I felt less like I was putting on a show (with all the attendant stress) and more like we were a group of merry honorary Greeks – a beautiful amalgamation of old world tradition and modern collaborative spirit. What is sweeter than that?

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Anatomy of a Cuban Sandwich

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During the post holiday malaise of January and February, it’s nice to have something to look forward to, a fun trip, a staycation, a cooking project that results in a fun and delicious meal. During the month of January, I’m usually a little burnt out from holiday excess and in the midst of a yoga-fueled health kick. That doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a little treat though! That’s why, when Sosios in the Market left me a message saying they had Seville Oranges in stock, five precious cases that were sure to go quickly, a plan involving the best pressed sandwich there is began to take shape.

The origin of the Cuban sandwich isn’t necessarily “shrouded in mystery” but it is a bit murky. The sandwiches were popular with workers in Cuba’s sugar mills where entrepreneurial folk would set up restaurants inside the mills and sell them to workers on their lunch breaks. A Cuban type sandwich called a “sandwich mixto” was common in cafeterias and restaurant menus in Cuba by the 1930s and there were mentions of the same in Tampa during this time as well. The cigar industry in Florida had shifted to Tampa in the late 1800s and tens of thousands of Cuban workers moved there over the next 30 or so years, so some believe that these old mixtos became the Cuban sandwich as we know it today. Miami, drawing a large influx of Cubans after Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, also claims a stake in the Cuban sandwich game and by the 1960s, the Cuban was common among the expat community there as well.

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There are a few slight variations to the Cuban – some use a salty Serrano in place of a sweeter ham and others add an olive salad similar to a tapenade to the mix. The building blocks, however, are always the same: pork, ham, swiss, pickles and Cuban style bread. Now what is Cuban style bread exactly? Its unique properties make it ideal for pressing because it develops a uniform crunch on the outside with a soft inside breadiness that smooshes down to a perfect bread to filling ratio,  while remaining sturdy and actually quite portable. No messy filling falling out situation here!

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Besides the Cuban bread, the other unique ingredient in this delicious sandwich is the Seville or sour orange. Seville oranges are prized worldwide for traditional English Bitter Orange Marmalade as well as the Mojo Criollo marinade for our Cuban sandwich pork. Here in Seattle, the only place I have found them is the aforementioned Sosio’s in Pike Place Market and only for a couple weeks in January/February. This is why I am on their call list and so, a couple Saturdays ago, we headed down to the market to pick up our precious bag of citrus. I always love visiting the stalls in the market because the purveyors are so passionate about produce. They wax poetic about asparagus and all but sing sonnets about pears. And they love food nerding it up with regulars and telling tall tales to tourists. So fun!

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Citrus acquired, we called up El Diablo Coffee Co, a Cuban inspired cafe on Queen Anne and the only place in Seattle where we have been able to find legit Cuban bread for purchase. Given enough notice, they are happy to order 3-10 extra loaves for us. When we first started doing this, they made the bread in house but after some turnover, they started sourcing it from Miami. Now I think they are baking it in house again and it is just as amazing as ever!

If you are going to do it all in one go, set aside a full day for pork roasting for the Cubans, and if you are a prepared type of person, make the mojo the night before to give that shoulder a good long time in the marinade. In a pinch 2-3 hours in the mojo is fine but on top of that, you will be looking at 3-5 hours roasting time. All that Seville juice, garlic, oregano and porky goodness will make your house smell amazing!

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Since most of the time on this is hands off, you will have plenty of time to whip up a couple pitchers of mojitos and relax. About at hour before go time, take your ham and Swiss out of the fridge to come to room temp. Then, when you are ready to griddle, smear some of the porky mojo onto the bottom slice, top with pickles, then sliced pork, ham and Swiss, a swipe of yellow mustard on the top bun, onto a buttered griddle and smash  that baby down with a heavy pot, (clean) brick or sandwich press.

And Voila!

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You can find the recipes I used for both the pork and the Cuban sandwiches on my Trello Board HERE and HERE. These Sandwiches are great for a crowd or just a few friends and they make great leftovers! They reheat amazingly in the oven wrapped in foil and are delicious cold, trouncing that sad slice of pizza that you forgot you ordered last night.

Florida isn’t good for much, but thanks to some entrepreneurial expats, you don’t have to leave the lower 48 for an amazing sandwich and, once in a blue moon, the culinary stars align to bring such a wonder to this PNW Hungry Ginger.

 

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Hungry Ginger Recommends – Holiday Edition

It’s finally reasonable to blast Christmas music and every office building in downtown Seattle seems to have a Christmas tree. You may think you have plenty of time to do your Christmas shopping, but you don’t. Also, have you put covers on all your outside faucets? It’s getting mighty cold at night and those old pipes could burst. Your neighbors have recently engaged in a Christmas decoration battle across the street, lighting up the neighborhood as bright as day, interfering with your sleep cycle. And speaking of day…does the sun even come out anymore? It’s dark when you go to work and dark when you leave. Ba Humbug!

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This is what Hungry Ginger would say if she were a Grinch (which I am not). I LOVE the holiday season, but that doesn’t mean the above Grinchy complaints aren’t true or valid. Not everyone loves the holidays and, even if you do, it can be a stressful time, full of expectations, to do lists, crazy holiday traffic and stressed out shoppers. That’s why this Hungry Ginger recommends a few things to bring you a little Holiday Cheer with a lot of Holiday Chill.

Have a Drink

Go visit the Christmas Popup, Miracle at Rob Roy (if you are in Seattle). They have decorated the shit out of the place (complete with a twerking Santa!) and have seasonal drinks up the wazoo. One “Yippee-Ki-Yay Motherfucker,” barkeep! Of course this popup is bound to be busy, so I recommend going early or late if crowds aren’t your thing. Honestly though, when we went at about 6 on a Saturday, it was packed but everyone seemed to be in a good mood and kindly made room in the cramped space. I don’t know if it was all the holiday cheer or what, but there was an unusual sense of conviviality among strangers that really warmed the cockles – could have also been the Rob Roy strong cocktails, but after two nogs, it’s really hard to tell.

If there isn’t a Christmas themed popup where you are, or if you just prefer to consume your holiday cheer at home, go buy some egg nog, mix with dark rum or bourbon and cognac and grate some fresh nutmeg on top and there you have it, holiday cheer. If dairy and booze aren’t your thing, try a cranberry old fashioned. Recipe is from Inspired by Charm.

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CRANBERRY OLD FASHIONED
Makes 1 cocktail

Here’s what you will need:
3 ounces quality bourbon whiskey
1 ounce cranberry simple syrup*
3 shakes Angostura bitters
Garnish with orange peel, Ocean Spray® Fresh Cranberries, and rosemary

In a serving glass with ice, stir together the bourbon, cranberry simple syrup, and bitters. Garnish with orange peel, fresh cranberries, and rosemary.

*Cranberry Simple Syrup – In a saucepan, bring 2 cups of water, 1 cup of sugar, and one cup of fresh cranberries to a boil. Once boiling, cook for 4-5 minutes. Strain with a fine mesh sieve. Cool before serving.

Watch a Holiday Movie

This is the time of year when the Hallmark Channel finally gets out of the red…and into the red and green! Oh yeah, I went there…Whether your idea of a great holiday movie is Mariah Carey realizing she is a princess while saving Santa from evil bankers trying to turn Rudolf into a stunt reindeer, or Bruce Willis barefoot in an air duct, holiday movies are a great way to get into the festive season and enjoy and cozy night at home. Some of my favs are the aforementioned Die Hard, Love Actually and the original Miracle on 34th Street (so dated, but so good!). The Thin Man is also a great one to watch between Christmas and New Years.

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If you are in Seattle and feel like going out to a theater, the Cinerama is doing a Holiday Film Series this coming week and Three Dollar Bill Cinema is showing one of my favs, Auntie Mame!

Go on a Holidate

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Every year, the hubby and I go on a holiday themed date, a holidate! We get brunch or holiday tea at the Fairmont, brave Nordstrom to get a little Christmas shopping out of the way and then settle down for a cocktail or three and a yummy dinner. A Holidate could be anything though! You could pack a thermos of spiked hot apple cider, some meats and cheeses and head up to the mountains for a snowy walk and picnic. You could check out the Enchant Christmas light show at Safeco and then get dinner in the International District, or drive over to Leavenworth and visit the year-round Christmas store and taste some full-bodied winter beers. You could do all of this with your S.O., your bestie, your Mom/Dad or your dog! The point is to make it yours so that the holidays bring you joy rather than annoyance. No matter what your religious beliefs may be, it makes sense that we have this festival of lights during the darkest time of year, so I invite you to get out there and enjoy it in whatever way warms YOUR cockles most!

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Cookie Monster

At the tail end of September, I had a hell of a sweet tooth. Halloween was looming in the distance in all its candy corn studded, fun-sized glory, but I had a hankering for a very specific kind of sweet: the tried and true chocolate chip cookie. I grew up eating my Dad’s chocolate chip cookies. They followed your basic “back of the Toll House bag” recipe cooked to a pleasant crispness that isn’t really my jam anymore. But even thinking of them now evokes fond memories of Sunday afternoons playing dress-up with my friends or painting with my dad. A big bowl of cookie dough and me, attempting to eat as much of the raw dough as I could get away with. And then that freshly baked cookie smell. Ahhh….

So maybe I was trying to capture a bit of that magic in the midst of this exhausting adulting project that has so many deadlines but no real end. My subconscious self seemed to be aware of this even before my conscious mind and, one day, I looked at my saved recipes and saw a half dozen iterations of the chocolate chip cookie, just begging to be explored. I didn’t have so much a plan as a general direction. I would start with the classic ingredients – chocolate, butter, sugar, listen to my gut and see where it took me.

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My recommendation for chocolate chips. Chunks are always better than chips because they don’t have stabilizers and these are high quality and “pre-chunked” for convenience.

First, I wanted a gooey buttery, chocolate chip cookie, the kind reminiscent of the Mrs. Fields cookies at the mall. I wanted warm cookie dough baked to food safety standards, but just barely. No fancy bells and whistles, classic, timeless. For this I chose a recipe from the New York Times. You can find it on my Trello Board HERE.

This recipe is pretty similar to the Toll House of yore ingredient-wise, but is distinguished by the fact that you chill the dough for up to 72 hours before baking. 72 HOURS, you say?!? But I want my cookies when I want my cookies! I don’t want to have to wait for up to three days! It may seem like a long time, but with some planning and adjustment of expectations, it’s totally doable and worth it! I mean, you can still snack on the dough while you’re making it!

 

 

That time chilling in the fridge allows the wet and dry ingredients to really get to know each other and creates a delicious unified flavor throughout the cookie. The only thing I did differently from the recipe as written, was that I formed the dough into balls before chilling, on the recommendations of the some of the comments on the NYT website. Chilled dough tends to be crumbly, which can make it difficult to form into balls for baking.

Chilled chocolate chip cookie dough

Something that I learned from doing this recipe is that I don’t actually have to bake all the dough at once. In fact, I can do just two for me and the hubby, as an after dinner  treat, and throw the rest in the freezer for another day.

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This recipe turned out great! The cookies had great flavor and texture and, eaten warm from the oven with a glass of cold milk…perfection!

Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies

Having satisfied my classic cookie craving, I looked abroad for some inspiration. There is a restaurant/bakery in Paris called Mokonuts. David Lebovitz has waxed poetic about it and more recently, the New York Times shared the recipe for their famous chocolate chip cookies. Find it on my Trello Board HERE. These cookies are inspired by the classic cookie but influenced by the chef owner’s middle eastern heritage, featuring not only dark chocolate chunks but also poppy seeds, dried cranberries and a mix of AP and Rye flour. “Sacrebleu! Sacrilege!” You may cry. How dare those French mess with MY classic All-American cookie! Well, I am happy to report that, not only is this version a tasty cookie, but it honors the original, while taking you on a flavor and texture journey that the humble Toll House could never hope to accomplish.

Mokonuts cookie dough

Now, I am not a fan of the oatmeal raisin cookie. To me, it is an impostor; disappointment masquerading as a tasty treat. It looks like a chocolate chip cookie but, where the delicious chocolate chunks should be, are instead shriveled up sadness. And the oatmeal is just too chewy…bleh. So I was loath at first to add rye and cranberries, let alone the inexplicable poppy seeds to what was already a good thing. However, I’ve gotta say, it worked. The rye played nicely with the AP to create a richer dough. The cranberries added a nice tartness to balance out the sweetness and complement the dark chocolate. And the poppy seeds added a surprising crunch without changing the flavor profile at all. This was an exciting cookie to eat, with each bite offering up a little adventure to spice up the familiar.

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Another different aspect of this recipe is that the chilled dough is baked at a toasty 425 degrees for only 10 minutes. This results in a cookie that is just holds together, with a gooey center and slightly crisp edges. Not your grandma’s cookie but a delicious iteration nonetheless.

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So far, we’ve gone old school and new French school and, for our final cookie, let’s go big or go home. This next cookie recipe has been making its way around the internet on various blogs for a couple years now. People are fascinated by both the cookie’s size and the seemingly fussy baking instructions that result in an entirely unique and delicious experience. Yes, this is a giant cookie. The recipe has us use a full 1/3 of a cup of cookie dough per cookie. This is a lot of cookie dough, when you consider most recipes ask for a heaping spoonful. I ended up using about 1/4 cup of dough per cookie and that was plenty big. Like the other two recipes here, chill the prepared dough. I ended up chilling my dough for a bit longer than recommended, mostly because I was a little intimidated by the sheer size of the things. This didn’t seem to negatively affect the end result.

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Salt and pepper gnome here for scale…not sure why I thought this would be helpful but he’s pretty cute isn’t he? Needless to say, these balls were big. This is all of the cookie dough, which in a normal recipe would make about 18-20 cookies. When I finally baked them about four days later, I followed the involved baking instructions which have you bake at 350 for 10 min, then bang the cookie sheet on the oven rack so the cookies collapse, then repeat the process every 2-3 minutes until they have been baking and banging for about 18 minutes total. This creates a ripple effect that is both Instagram worthy and delicious. The cookies are soft and velvety in the center and slightly crisp toward the edges. The hubs and I mowed down with a glass of milk right before bed and were a little wired, so I recommend eating them earlier in the night to avoid sugar dreams.

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Notice that two cookies take up nearly half of the baking sheet. These are not for the faint of heart and you can find the recipe on my Trello board HERE.

So what is the takeaway from this cookie adventure? Besides the fact that it is dangerous having ready to bake cookies in the house at all times, I learned that a beloved classic can be enjoyed in many forms and, just like in life, getting out of your comfort zone every once and a while can be a wonderful and eye-opening thing. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for my Dad’s chocolate chip cookies but I look forward to making new memories with cherished recipes of my own.

Happy Baking!

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Hungry Ginger Recommends – $%&! It’s Almost the End of October Edition

Wasn’t it just August and we were coughing through the summer wildfire smoke, making icebox cakes and exercising regularly?? Then, all of the sudden, freakin’ leaves are falling, Trader Joe’s is throwing pumpkin everything at us, and the gym seems like the worst idea. I mean, it’s going to be the holidays soon. Does it even matter at this point? Plus, it’s raining. Even the cat is depressed.

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Before we start panicking about family holiday gatherings, let’s catch our breath and do a few things for ourselves.

Read a Book

I just finished Robert Galbraith’s latest mystery novel, Lethal White. If you are unfamiliar, Mr. Galbraith is the pseudonym of the one and only J. K. Rowling, who was outed in 2013 and, as of this October, is the author of four books in the Cormoran Strike series. All of the books are very good and this latest installment is the most intricate yet. The story lines are engaging and and the characters well-developed, with just the right level of sexual tension between the two main characters. Lethal White is quite long, clocking in at around 650 pages, but it moves pretty quickly and the pay-off is satisfying. It’s a perfect read for cold drizzly Fall days, curled up on the couch with a hot cup of cider. Cinemax has a mini series based on the first three books, which is quite good as well.

Watch a Show

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat came out in 2017. It is, and isn’t a cookbook. Yes, there are recipes, but at least half of the 450+ pages are more of a friendly conversation about cooking. The central idea of this cookbook is that, you don’t need recipes to cook well, just a basic understanding of how salt, fat, acid and heat work together in the kitchen. There’s a reason your pasta water should be “as salty as the sea.” Your dish too sweet? Add some acid! While I definitely recommend the cookbook as a kitchen staple, the mini series, just released On Netflix, is a feast for the eyes as well. Samin Nosrat is not your typical culinary television personality. She is goofy (in a genuine way, not a Guy Fieri way), real, and clearly relishes everything about food and cooking. She is someone you can imagine spending a relaxing afternoon with, messing around in the kitchen. The show is a good mix of travel, food porn and practical tips and, at just four episodes, will leave your mouth watering and wanting more. You might also be inspired to make some scratch pesto, just like the Italian grandmas did.

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Light a Candle

Okay, okay, I know I made fun of Trader Joe’s earlier, but it’s only because I am guilty of buying into their pumpkin lunacy. Yes I silently judged the girl in front of me for grabbing the pumpkin Spice cookies…and then snagged a box for myself. Some of my favorite seasonal items at TJs, however, are the candles. The Pumpkin Vanilla and Honeycrisp Apple varieties to be exact. The Pumpkin Vanilla candle smells like you could possibly be a good baker and the Honeycrisp Apple smells like a crisp fall day and you’ve just bitten into a big juicy apple. They’re a great way to get into the Fall mood, just in case the wet leaves and dark mornings aren’t doing the trick yet.

That’s it! here’s hoping we are in for a few more sunny Fall days so my cat doesn’t start requiring kitty Prozac.

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