Earlier this year, I decided to attend The Big Traveling Potluck in southern California. I knew absolutely no one else who was attending. It took place in way more sunshine than my foggy San Francisco existence can now handle. I prefer solitude in my personal life. When it comes to interacting with people I would rather have one-to-one interactions or small groups of friends. Given that even at events where I know people, I’m likely to hang out at the periphery, this endeavor did not have the makings of a good idea. It was altogether so far out of my comfort zone, I would need a map to navigate my way back. But the event itself promised to be a good one to, focused on community, learning things others have to teach and I have to learn, and sharing a few meals in the process. I thought I might try it.
Our opportunities for self-assessment go down as we get older and are often tied to our jobs or our families, with little reflection on ourselves. This, for me, was a step in a series of attempts to do something that I didn’t have to do or wasn’t pushed along to try because of the time I am at in my life. To shake things up. There was no deliberation on what I hoped to achieve from it, except that I would be committing to doing something that I would normally shy away from.
The event took place in gorgeous countryside with rolling hills covered in sparse grape vines around us. It was a beautiful place for meeting, for hanging out by yourself or for a large party of people, which we were. The introvert in me had a bit of a tough time of it, dealing with close proximity to many complete strangers for long periods. There was also sun-stroke weather and stifling heat since we were in the middle of some pretty hot SoCal real estate. Some hosts that could have done with a lesson in the meaning of the word ‘host’; there was about as much graciousness in them as the cactus that dotted the landscape, which really put me off. But I’m glad I stuck through it. New challenges teach you new things about yourself. I learned a few things and met a few truly lovely people (including other hosts that did understand genuineness and hospitality). I got re-schooled in focusing on the good things and got to eat some gosh darn amazing food. Fabulous avocados, ripe and abundant produce, some wonderful coffee. The food was my favourite thing about the weekend. Another was that I won a Kitchen Aid 5 speed blender. (Thanks Kitchen-Aid. I have never, ever won anything this nice.)
The food for the conference was incredible. There was the concept of a potluck for some of the meals and many people did bring along some delicious dishes. Cakes, cookies, salads, frittatas, all of the bloggers did so well at delivering a taste of what their cooking was about. For me, the outstanding meal of the weekend was our Saturday lunch, catered by Whole foods. For the simplicity of its concept, it was phenomenal in execution and a delight to eat. They put together a bean and grain salad bar. Sounds simple, I know, but the sheer abundance of the offerings and the myriad combinations of a salad bowl that could be put together, this buoyed all our spirits on that very hot day more than anything. Coupled with make-our-own spritzers, it was the perfect meal.
There were five tables set up. The first contained all manner of grains like bulger, farro, whole wheat orzo, forbidden black rice and pearl couscous. The second had a variety of bean dishes, butter beans with rosemary, chickpeas with za’atar, green lentils with mint. The third had several different kinds of pickled and roasted vegetables along with some meat options like roast chicken strips and turkey meatballs. Then there was the table of sauces which had some varieties of salsa, buttermilk dressings, a cashew cream-based sauce, a sauce very reminiscent of a creamy buttermilk ranch and there was also some raw vegetables like lettuce, avocado, radish and diced tomato. The last table had toppings; pumpkin and sunflower seeds, a variety of nuts like almonds and honey-roasted peanuts along with corn chips and crunchy onions. Everything was about room temperature. Downed with a cool lemonade, it was one of the best salad lunches I have enjoyed, hearty yet healthy and immensely satisfying.
I decided to adapt this idea to try out at home and the next time I had about six or so friends over for a meal, I seized the opportunity. Depending on what you make, some of the items can be prepared the earlier day and then heated on the day of the party. For that day, I made everything that morning for an evening meal and still it didn’t seem like an overwhelming task at all.
My basic idea for getting the vegetables done in record time was to prepare each one with a principal herb (since I raided my summer garden of all the herbs there), some form of acid and then layer on other flavours as I saw fit. It was a great exercise in free-styling a menu, making up dishes as I got on with the cooking. I created a basic work plan. There would be meatballs for the meat eaters and an equivalent for the vegetarians. Beyond that, I planned to have two types of grains, two types of sauces, some raw vegetables for crunch, lots of cooked vegetables and some crunchy toppings. I made sure I wasn’t duplicating any of the main ingredients through all the dishes I was making, and that was what helped me pull the meal together.
Here is what I made.
For the grains, there was
– Vagharela Chawal (Caramelized brown rice)
– Red Quinoa – just prepared per packet directions
For the veggies, I made
– Skillet-cooked Portobello Mushrooms with garlic, parsley, basil and cayenne pepper
– Oven-roasted Sweet Red Peppers with marjoram and lime juice
– Oven-roasted Sweet Potato with sage, garlic, chipotle chilli powder and pomegranate vinegar
– Oven-roasted Carrots with oregano, ginger, maple syrup, orange juice, cumin and paprika
– Spicy Corn with cherry tomatoes
For the beans portion, I served
– Masoor (red lentils) cooked with garlic, mint, ginger and dhana-jeera powder
– Chickpeas cooked with rosemary, garlic, dhana-jeera powder and red chilli powder
I made hara-bhara kababs and chicken kababs.
For the sauces, I offered up a cashew cream spiked with butter chicken gravy base and an avocado sauce made with avocados whizzed-up in the blender with chipotle peppers lemon juice and a little sour cream. Both were garnished with a bit of cilantro.
I provided diced raw tomato & lettuce with some chive flowers mixed in. There were also peanuts, sunflower seeds and snack-type chana dal for toppings.
Since there was such a variety of dishes, I needed to cook small quantities of them. What you see in the photos is the quantities I had and they could have actually fed two or three more people. Using my oven and stove-top sped up the process as I could roast at least two vegetables on baking sheets at one time while cooking other things on the stove. The roasting was mostly done at about 350°-375°F. The timing varied depending on the vegetable itself. Sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, took longer to cook than the peppers.
All of the herbs I used came from my backyard, which was part of what helped me decide how to cook the vegetables. I based my hara-bhara kabab loosely on this recipe, folding boiled chard into the mix. As a whole, all of the components, created a nutritious and satisfying bowl of goodness. There was several layers of aromas that helped whet everyone’s appetites and the multi-coloured table was a visual delight. This is a great idea to put together a meal for a bunch of people with varied preferences. If you so require, vegetarian, gluten-free, all tastes can be accommodated, since your guests can pick and choose how to put their own salad bowl together.
In these last days of summer as we turn to fall, I plan to try variations of this a few times more. There are varieties of squash and peppers I’d like to build in. One thing is for sure, I got to have a lot of fun with this menu. There’s is always something to learn from the experience when one tries something new.