A funny thing happened at the Week Eleven Ina Lunch, which in hindsight was only funny because I knew the people involved. If they had been strangers, it might have been less funny and more stressful. Basically, there was a reservation misunderstanding, and we had two unexpected guests show up ready to sit and enjoy a leisurely meal together. Babysitters had been arranged, and alternate dates were not an option.
We set another table. We gathered glasses and dishes. And we made it work. I was so thankful for the extra servings of food I happened to have on hand and for the ability to make both of them feel comfortable and welcome in a situation that can tend to make everyone feel awkward or uncomfortable. It was hospitality in action, and it never ceases to speak to my heart.
Hospitality is the art of creating space for others, and while it is a gift when planned in advance, I tend to think it is particularly special when inconvenient or impossible to anticipate. It’s the uncomfortable situations, like unexpected lunch guests, where we get to lean in and say to our guest, “There is always space for you.” I was thankful for the tangible lesson and picture of hospitality this week.
WHAT I COOKED
Homemade Chicken Stock, Foolproof
Mexican Chicken Soup, At Home
Chili Tortilla Chips, Foolproof
Easy Cranberry and Apple Cake, How Easy Is That?
Parker’s Split Pea Soup, Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Chicken with Tabbouleh, Family Style
Challah French Toast, Family Style
WHAT I LEARNED
MEXICAN CHICKEN SOUP. There is probably a reason Ina’s recipes don’t feature a lot of Tex-Mex staples. Primarily, she’s not from Texas, but also, she hates cilantro. It’s one of her things, and I think she has whatever the genetic predisposition is where the herb literally tastes like soap. I wanted this soup to be a winner, but it was obvious after a couple of bites that this was written by someone who hasn’t grown up with twenty different Mexican restaurants within a five mile radius. There were a couple of contributing factors that made this feel off. The cilantro is cooked in the soup, which means by the time it is served, it is dark and has lost it’s bright “cilantro-ness.” The base of vegetables included carrots and celery, which in my opinion should have been peppers and onions. It needs something smoky. It needs lime. It needs less celery. This soup is fine, but in light of how stellar the majority of her offerings are, it fell flat.
EASY CRANBERRY APPLE CAKE. This is one of the easiest dessert recipes out there. I love the tart fresh cranberries, the sweet apple, and the hint of orange and cinnamon. The flavor is reminiscent of apple pie, but with a burst of holiday cranberry flavor. The cake batter top has a nice crunch from the cinnamon sugar, and it comes together so quickly. Topped with vanilla ice cream while still warm? Yes please.
HERBED GOAT CHEESE. Winner. Add it to the line-up. Top ten appetizer. No cooking required. And I want to add this to the menu at Hurley House. It was that good. Layers of goat cheese are topped with olive oil, fresh herbs, cracked red pepper, and salt. Dive in with the cracker of your choice, and never look back. I think this would make a darling hostess gift, and would definitely be a welcome addition to a cheese board.
LOIN OF PORK WITH FENNEL. True story. I literally went to the grocery store to buy the ingredients for this dish at 8:00 that morning, prepped it, cooked it, and served it for lunch at noon the same day. It was that fast, which is surprising given that this is a stuffed meat dish. It was moist, beautiful, and each roast served seven to eight people. I would repeat this on a week night and serve it with a green vegetable or salad. I would also serve this at a dinner party with fancier sides and not let anyone know how fast and easy the main dish was.
LENTIL SAUSAGE SOUP. Where the Mexican soup failed, the lentil soup soared. Ina knows her lentils, and this soup is a show stopper. In the spirit of full disclosure, I want you to know that I did use homemade chicken stock, which always adds depth of flavor and body. But, even if I had used boxed chicken stock, this soup would have rocked. There is a layer of sweetness from the tomato paste, a layer of spice from the kielbasa, and a zing of acid from the vinegar at the end. As an added bonus, I had chopped all the ingredients the day before and store them in the fridge. I am learning more and more how valuable this kind of simple prep work can be. Because the chopping was done, I was able to make this soup with minimal active attention needed, which freed me up to do other things while the most delicious pot of wonderfulness bubbled away, making my day.
MASHED POTATOES. I love that Ina taught me how to make mashed potatoes. She taught me that the secret ingredient is salt. She taught me that I can make them ahead and keep them warm on the stove. She taught me that they are not to be saved only for holidays or special occasions. Mashed potatoes are for weeknight meals, and when you know how to do them well, they won’t disappoint. This recipe was the first mashed potato recipe I ever tried, after watching her make it on her show, and I haven’t looked back since. Thank you, Ina, for the gift of mashed potatoes.
CROISSANT BREAD PUDDING. This hit all the right notes for me. Flaky buttery pastry is soaked in sweet vanilla custard and then baked until puffed and golden. Who’s with me? I loved it. I would serve this at New Year’s Eve with a glass of champagne. I would serve this at the end of a dinner party. I would stick birthday candles in this and serve it instead of cake. I was particularly surprised how much I liked the raisins. It is a little fussy to bake a pan inside another pan of hot water (it helps the custard bake more evenly), but it all works spectacularly.