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Fine friends and new foods
It might seem like a stretch to put this new column on the Health page but here’s the concept: Potluck dinners are a wonderful way to get together in winter, and they have an inherent health benefit if done with a little energy and “intention” (to use a 2016 buzz word).
Potlucks are defined in a lot of ways, but I’m going to use the model created by my friend Brooke, who is a business and life coach. The potlucks he’s been hosting over many years are structured and have a defined set of rules that are intimidating to some people but very logical to other people (such as me).
You can email me for a copy of the potluck rules at email@example.com.
Part of the format of these meals is that everyone has to cook, and that after we all sit at the table, everyone talks for a moment about what they made and how they made it. Surprisingly, it doesn’t turn into an exercise in competitive cooking; usually everything is yummy and simple and the dishes and the chat give you a little insight into your friends and how they see (and taste) the world.
Even though there are rules and structure, the dinners come together pretty simply without a lot of preplanning. One potluck cookbook I read recently suggested that everyone sign in on a spreadsheet ahead of time and commit to a dish.
Usually Brooke and his wife, Cybele, choose a date and send out an email to a few people. We confirm who’s coming and if someone is feeling inspired they’ll say, “I’m making [fill in the food blank],” and everyone else can plan their dish accordingly.
The health aspect is as follows. I was listening to food activist and journalist Michael Pollan the other day on a podcast as he was talking about his own family’s eating habits. At one point he casually said something along the lines of, “Once you start cooking with the microwave, then everyone is just cooking and eating the dish they want.”
The idea with these semiformal potlucks is that there are only six to eight people at the table and everyone has cooked something that they know they will have to talk about, so they usually make an effort.
As a diner and participant in these meals, you also have to make an effort. Unless there is something that you really have an issue with or an aversion to, you’re going to eat everything on the table. And that’s nutritionally good; as a result, I find that once or twice a month I end up eating quinoa or kale with nutritional yeast, foods that I wouldn’t necessarily make on my own but that, cooked by the right person, are delicious — and healthy.
It’s also healthy, in my opinion, to sit around the table and a) talk about your food, and b) make conversation in an age when even highly evolved and extremely health conscious people such as myself and my daughter often eat dinner in front of the television.
As this column proceeds, I’ll be sharing recipes from our potlucks and also talking about some of the other social activities that can grow out of a group cooking endeavor. I’m hoping, for example, to find a group of students who all cook together in their school cafeteria or dormitory, or a group of retired men and/or women who cook together. If you have such a group, let me know. If you don’t, maybe you should start one!
In the meantime, here’s a recipe from Cybele that I love, and a potluck suggestion: One of Brooke’s rules is that everyone needs to show up on time, with their food hot or cold and ready to eat. Some people cook right before they leave home and carry their dish in some kind of thermal carrier. This keeps reheating and prepping at the host’s house off the to-do list. Some people do a hot dish (such as the protein), which is easiest if you’re the host. That can also help your guests to figure out what they’ll bring, based on your main course.
I’ve also learned a lot of handy cooking tips from doing group meals. The most important one I’ve gleaned (from Brooke and Cybele) is that you really need to use a thermometer when cooking meat.
Cybele’s pork burgers
2 pounds of ground pork, 3/4 cup of finely chopped onions, sautéed, 1/4 cup of finely chopped shallots and garlic (ratio of your choice—this meat can take a lot of flavor!), 4 tablespoons ground cumin (you can also leave this out completely), lots of fresh pepper, 3 tablespoons of salt, 1 cup of fresh chopped parsley, chipotle mayonnaise from Jam in Sharon (or any kind of mayonnaise for that matter), potato buns (you can use any kind, really, but I love how soft these are).
Mix the burger ingredients in a large bowl, being careful not to overwork the meat. Make eight patties. Cook the patties on the grill until the temperature hits no more than 135 degrees, as they will continue to cook a bit more after you take them off the grill. You can also cook the patties in a sauté pan — they are tasty either way.
Experts say pork needs to be cooked to 165 degrees, but I feel that by that point they’re overcooked; and when you get great quality meat from a quality source such as McEnroe’s in Millerton you don’t have to worry as much about bacteria (especially if the meat has been frozen, which kills bacteria).
And it is essential not to overcook this meat! It will ruin the burgers, which need to be soft and moist.
Do not break apart the buns completely (the burgers will be a little less messy to eat this way). Smother both sides liberally with chipotle mayonnaise. Place the patties on top and spoon whatever juicy drippings there are over them to make them even moister.