Monday, November 30, 2009

Dining Clubs and Chosing Ethnic Restaurants

Quote of the Concept
Well, I look at it like this: When you go to a restaurant, the less you know about what happens in the kitchen, the more you enjoy your meal. Jeffrey Wright

Eating Out as a Dinner Club We take turns finding an entrepreneurial restaurant that offers both a new cuisine and location experience.  We look for ethnic, locally owned restaurants in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. Surprisingly  internet searches haven't been helpful in locating restaurants. The most effective hunt and peek strategies have been the oldest.  What we see is what we get and word of mouth.  Our recommendations are:
  1. look in small out of the way suburban strip malls
  2. look in out of the way city streets
  3. look on 'eat streets' in changing neighborhoods
  4. get recommendations from friends and coworkers
  5. read your local neighborhood papers ( Sun Sailor and Minneapolis Star Tribune Taste  reviews work for us)
  6. take advantage of food market news such as Lakewinds Natural Foods newsletter.
One couple takes the responsibility for choosing the restaurant and makes reservations. It's evolved  that someone volunteers after we talk over potential choices at the end of a dinner.  We leave trusting that where ever we go will be a "mini vacation" and an adventure.  Once a potential restaurant is found, the Internet has been great to take a virtual tour at the restaurant's web site and peruse reviews, menu, and price; we stick to moderate price range restaurants.   When reservations are finalized, links are emailed so we can preview the evening and if we are in the mood read about the country and cuisine.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Dining Club - Philosophy of Abundant Tasting

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all. -----Harriet Van Horn
Our first meal was Greek.  We begged Sofia and Mark to choose Greece as they are incredible cooks, Sofia grew up in a Greek American neighborhood, and they had lived in Greece for several years as pistachio farmers.   
The menu  involved a several appetizers, soup, salad, two main course dishes, bread, vegetable, and a lovely walnut cake for dessert.   Greek wineOuzo and Greek coffee with a reading of our grounds completed the meal.  The first club meeting was a great success.
That was our last meal of some moderation.  
An innocent error brought us to our current state of multiple offerings. Our next meal was German and wanting to make desserts that no one in our club had ever eaten I also wasn't sure if they would be any good.  The solution was to make three desserts in small amounts so that everyone got a taste of every thing. (Cognac Pflaumenpudding - Brandied Plum Mold, Munchner Bierereme - Munich Beer Creme, Sauerlander Becher - White Grape Custard) If one or two were interesting but not attractive, no problem!  We would have the others.  The same thing happened with the entrees and with the appetizers. They all were good, in fact far better than good.  The food was enticing and intriguing. This was the birth of the practice of offering many foods and small portions in each part of the meal.

Now at each meal, depending on food density, time, and our own curiosity, we serve:
Appetizers: 3 to 6  (brought by one couple)
Host couple serves:
Salad: 0-3 
Breads and spreads
Entrees: 2 -3 mixed, fish, animal, vegetarian
Side dishes: 0-3
Deserts: 1-3 (brought by one couple) 
Beverages: wines, beers, juices, teas, coffees and national drinks. Usually 2-3 choices and brought by one couple.

The idea is to taste and enjoy but leave room for the next courses which are spread over four to five hours. This system works for us; other resources on creating a dinner party and great menu tips fill the internet and will help you plan.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dining Cooking Club - Choosing Cuisine Theme: Country or Region

Quote of the Concept
It's important to begin a search on a full stomach. Henry Bromel, Northern Exposure, The Big Kiss, 1991

Choosing a theme country is as individual as each person in our group.  Some of the countries were chosen because we:
  • researched the culture or recipes and were intrigued
  • stumbled across a recipe that sparked our interest
  • heard a news report, 
  • saw a movie,
  • read a book
  • met a person from that country
Some of us research a country and cuisine and test each recipes prior to the dinner.   My husband and I randomly choose a cuisine, find interesting recipes and cook them the first time for the dinner. Everyone experiments, each in our own way, which brings richness to the feast.

Early on we cooked from our immigrant ancestors home countries.  In the beginning we were more comfortable trying recipes that had ingredients and seasonings that we were more skilled in using. We've gained confidence and cohesiveness as a club and now can experiment with ardor and humility.
Some of the countries whose cuisines we have enjoyed include:

Wordle: International Dinner Club Themes

Argentina  Afghanistan  Belize  Brazil  Costa Rica  Cuba  El Salvador  Ethiopia  Finland  France  Polynesia  Germany  Greece  Guatemala  Hong Kong  India  Italy  Japan  Mexico  Morocco  Nicaragua  Norway  Panama  Peru  Poland  Singapore  Spain  Sweden  Thailand  Tibet  Turkey  United Kingdom  United States.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dining Cooking Club - Beautiful Table Settings

Quote of the Concept
If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony.   Fernand Point

Generous with what we cook and drink we tend to be frugal when setting the table.  Avoiding purchasing new dishes, center pieces and place settings is a goal.   Instead we look around our homes and use what we own or can create very economically; the outcome has produced lovely and creative tables which add to our enjoyment of the culture we are experiencing.  All tables are set formally and we try to mirror the dining etiquette of the culture we are highlighting. Sharing dishes as needed so that no one has to purchase extras soup bowls, asian soup spoons or pudding cups has also helped.  If we are shopping at second hand stores or neighborhood sales and see an item we will use often we also purchase it.
Rich and Donna graced their Hungarian theme
 with wild flowers and candlelight

Mark and Sofia created a lovely English table
with china they already owned.

Laurie and Jim's  Thailand theme called for a  runner so
 Laurie  economically sewed the blue bamboo beauty below
 to create a dazzling table.

When we dined on Guatemalan cuisine Jim and Laurie surprised us with a table setting which they had purchased on a trip to Guatemala.  The color surrounded us in warmth on a cold Minnesota evening and brought the heat and beauty of Guatemala into the room.

Cal and Mary's simple pink and red table highlighting the cuisine
of Hong Kong included silverware for guests as a courtesy; within our
club skills with chopsticks range from novice to proficient.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dining Cooking Club Structure: Who Brings What, Where and When

Quote of the Concept
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 - 1973) 

Our organizational structure emerged into a plan that has produced fun nights, no conflict and a collaborative and genial club.  We offer it a sample of what can work.
Hosts:  The hosts decide the country and region theme and announce their choice during the dinner. We are always as excited as children during the holidays to learn what new culture we will be exploring.
What:  Each couple brings either the:
desserts or
hosts and provide the main courses.
Whoever hosted last brings the beverages for a break from cooking.  
Dates: We meet on Saturday evening and are very flexible with dates always rescheduling if anyone can not make it.  We try to pick a new date after dessert but often end up emailing choices to each other and then rescheduling as needed.
We rotate homes in the same order.
Hosts provide beverage glasses; appetizer and dessert dishes are negotiated and shared.
Clean up:  Appetizer and dessert providers pack their dishes to take home to clean. For us it works better to eat, drink, talk and laugh and deal with clean up later.
Also given the hosting rotation you only have a big clean up once every five dinners!

Eating Out as a Dinner ClubIn six years the wisdom of the plan has held and we’ve only made one change.  After two years of cooking we decided between each rotation of four dinners to go out.  We take turns finding an entrepreneurial restaurant that offers both a new cuisine and location experience.  We order wine, appetizers, desserts as family, and our own entrĂ©e.  Our bill is evenly divided.

Final Thoughts on a Successful Dinner Club:  We've never had problems or conflicts within our club. We never talked about areas that can cause problems such as budgets, expectations of cooking etc. because we were novices and didn't know to do so.   Our success is a small measure of luck and a large measure of flexible and collaborative behavior. Tips from the experts on setting up a cooking Gourmet Dinner Club  are a good place to start to ensure a successful club but the best tip we can give is find people who like to cook as much as they like to eat, love to laugh and enjoy encouraging and supporting other.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dining Cooking Club - A Japanese Feast

If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.
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At each meal we create a menu to help us know what each other has brought to the feast.
For this dinner the menu was:


Green Beans in Sesame Dressing (Ingen no goma-ae)



 (Traditional candy for Boy's or Girl's day)
Permission to use Buddha and Frog Photographs
 granted by Tim Kirchhof, copyright 2009 

* Want to know how to make sushi?  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is beyond measure.  Enjoy!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dining and Cooking Club - An Innocent Beginning

Quote of the Concept: Food is so primal, so essential a part of our lives, often the mere sharing of recipes with strangers turns them into good friends. ~Jasmine Heiler, about

For the last six years I’ve been part of a wonderful experiment to learn more about other cultures through food. Four couples decided to meet 6 - 8 times a year to enjoy a dinner based on a theme of a country or region. What has evolved has been an adventure. We’ve experienced collaboration, generosity, friendship, extraordinary food and a window into a deeper understanding of ourselves and other people.

Our beginning was unremarkable in its inception. We met as parent volunteers, for our sons’ scout troop, with eight sons among us. When one of our youngest was accepted to attend school in Japan through the Rotary Youth Exchange, I invited his family over for a Japanese dinner.  My husband had worked in Japan and I’d been able to spend time there as a guest of the Japanese Government through the Fulbright Teacher Memorial Program. That first dinner was our two families eating, laughing, mastering chop sticks to eat soba noodles and sharing stories of our fondness for the people of Japan and their cuisine. Later that week the other three “Moms”, exercising on the walking trail, talked the club into existence.

In this blog I’ll share what we have learned about creating and maintaining a successful club, cooking and enjoying food from cultures around the globe, and how it has enriched our lives in multiple and unexpected ways.
Please contact us with your stories, ideas, recipes, and menus. We look forward to evolving and sharing our journeys as we cook into cultures.