Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Chicago 10, or, A Potluck Really Isn't Just About Food, Is It?

The Inaugural Food on the Dole Potluck was held last Sunday evening to great success. About ten people braved the rain and came to a complete stranger's (me) house bearing wonderful foods to share. Now, faced with the unique and delicious problem of consuming all the leftovers, I have decided to document the evening. (Apologies in advance--photos weren't foremost on my mind during the event and many of the ones I did get are a bit blurry.)

The food was perfect in range and amount. Lisa arrived first, bearing grilled bacon-wrapped cheese dogs, something no one could resist. She also brought a bottle of ketchup for them, igniting the oft-discussed topic of many native Chicago-ans being against ketchup on hot dogs. The consensus was that many of us didn't really understand that rule in the hot dog book in the first place--the argument usually being that ketchup, full of sugar and/or corn syrup, detracts from all of the other flavors involved in a hot dog, or Chicago Dogs in particular. Which, in theory, makes perfect sense...until one really considers what's in a hot dog, and more so, what's on it. Yellow mustard? Sweet blue-green relish? Tomatoes that are out of season 11 months of the year? It's not like we're talking about the pinnacle of subtlety in flavor here--let's be honest: a hot dog is a salt and fat bomb, and that's what draws us to it. I love a good, charred Chicago Dog as much as the next guy, and I definitely respect the tradition of keeping ketchup off of it. But it's for the sake of tradition of one of our definitive cultural foods, not because I think the fragile flavor profiles of a Chicago Dog are altered by some ketchup. Besides, who doesn't have their mouth stuffed with ketchup dipped fries at the same time as a dog? (Note: I full well expect several flaming responses to this from die-hard Chicago Dog traditionalists. If no one hears from me by the end of the day, call in the FBI.)

If you are still reading this and I haven't been banished from Chicago, let's move on. Lisa also brought Brussels sprouts, deliciously roasted rather than grilled with the hot dogs due to the whole Brussels sprouts falling through the grill conundrum. We all discussed how Brussels sprouts (note the 's' on the end of Brussels--so often left off) get a bad rap, much like Lima beans and cabbage. Cooked well, all of these things can be delicious, and these ones, soft and tender, certainly were.

Anne and Davis arrived bearing a terrific kale salad, adding a much needed element of fibrous greens to the table. And it was really, really good. Diced carrots and plenty of garlic made it into the bowl, and a rich, flavorful dressing of what I recall to be Balsamic vinegar and olive oil really made the salad happen. Kale is so amazingly good for the body, and I've had it cooked so much, but I can't remember having it raw. It worked splendidly. And the best part of a salad like this, as Davis pointed out, was that it can be dressed, and whatever is leftover can sit, dressed, in the fridge for a few days, and still be really good. Because of kale's thickness and sturdiness, it'll hold up to that, whereas a salad made of most anything else will wilt within a few hours, and turn into a brown soggy mess. In fact, I just finished what I kept last night, 24 hours later, and it was just as good as the night before.

Jenn brought a great quiche, made with the all - important handmade crust she rolled out herself. Leeks and eggs made the quiche good; the ham inside spread it's smokiness throughout and took the quiche to another level--not just another bland, eggy quiche--this one was full of flavor, and with a crust you want to eat completely. She followed this up with the lightest butterscotch meringue cookies ever, so airy and delicate, crunching into powder when eaten. Made with butterscotch schnapps that she said sort of just showed up at her house, kicking off a discussion of those mysterious liquors that no one ever really buys, but they just end up in the cabinet after parties.

Nick and Andrea brought the spice to the party--a pot full of pork green chile, made with tomatillos and roasted peppers. They came bearing lots of accessories as well: tortillas and a tortilla container to keep them warm, sour cream, cilantro and limes. The chile added a welcome sharpness to all of the rich foods we'd been enjoying so far, and took our taste buds up a bit, asking to be quenched with the beer and wine everyone brought. They even left some behind for me--I ate it this morning, simmering some torn corn tortillas and a couple of cracked eggs in it for breakfast.

Julia was our next arrival, bringing a big bowl of quinoa, the wonder grain, bursting with bits of salmon, tomatoes and other veggies. A nice cool down from the hot chile, the quinoa was full of flavor--something that happens far too infrequently with quinoa. Despite the grain having a distinct taste of it's own, I've had it too much where seasoning issues make it just plain boring. This had big flavor, with distinct bits of salmon tucked into flavorful quinoa with vegetables that were so welcome to our heavy potluck. Aside from the kale salad, this was definitely the healthiest complete item brought that night.

I marinated some Capriole Chevre in olive oil, red wine vinegar and garlic, and made a lasagna bolognese, complete with beef from Iowa braised in the homemade sauce, which was finished with milk from Saturday's Green City Market. We hand-rolled spinach pasta and baked the lasagna, pulling it from the oven just as guests arrived. Jill rounded out Jenn's dessert meringues with a big batch of Scotcheroos--which involved rice krispies, peanut butter, chocolate and butterscotch chips. So dense and rich, so textured and crispy, so very delicious, she made it from a recipe from her grandmother. A perfect way to end a potluck.

But the thing is, the potluck didn't end there. Most guests stayed, and we sat around the table, people who just met chatting away like old friends, drinking wine and beer and just enjoying each other's company. This was special, and this was the goal of the evening. The food brought everyone together; the spirit of the event kept everyone there. Some had to leave early (it was a Sunday night), but really, each person who came through my door that evening left a big impression on me, and I hope this is something that we can continue in the future. The response was pretty positive to the idea of more potlucks, and if any of you out there would like to join in, please let me know. After all, there's now proof that something like this actually can happen in the city, in this day and age, thanks to the brave initial ten that took the plunge that rainy night and made it happen. My community is expanded now, and that's a pretty special thing.