So, this is how my life works ... sometimes ...
In July, I received an email from a publicist promoting a cookbook. Not unusual. Since I’ve started writing this column, I get emails like this a few times a week; some look interesting, on others I take a pass. The subject matter on this particular cookbook, however, has been an on-and-off topic of discussion between a couple of friends of mine: potlucks ... how would we go about starting one?
Enter Nancy Vienneau, a caterer-turned-cookbook author in Nashville, who has written about her group, the Third Thursday Community Potluck.
Now, what makes this even more serendipitous is that I had planned to be in Nashville for a work-related conference on the third Thursday in August. May I attend the dinner and meet the author, I asked the publicist.
Oh, yes, for once the planets have aligned. I have an invitation and directions and a homemade pecan pie (my Dad’s recipe) to bring to the dinner.
I arrive atmy destination in the Nashville neighborhood of West Meade and am greeted warmly by the hostesses, Rhonda and Karen. Nancy’s in the kitchen and I make my way in and introduce myself.
Nancy tells me that she and friend Gigi Gaskins started the community potluck in June 2009 as a way to share food with friends and acquaintances and talk about what they are growing, cooking, eating and advocating.
And to make it really easy on everyone, there are no rules to this potluck. Well, OK, two rules: (one) the group meets at 6:30 p.m. every third Thursday; (two) no assigned dishes, but if you do bring something, it should be seasonal.
It works like this: Nancy and Gigi started with a list of about 80 friends. (I know that sounds like a lot of folks, but think about it ... not everyone shows up every time. The August night that I attended, there were approximately 30 people, some were newbies like me, a couple were regulars, others attended when they could.) Email invites go out about 10 days ahead of the potluck; you don’t have to RSVP, just show up if you are available and bring a dish.
Few of the diners said that part of the fun was that you never knew what you would get. Sometimes there would be a dish of Indian curry set next to a plate of Italian pasta or an array of roasted vegetables next to a bowl of crisp salad greens.
Some attendees are known for their dishes (a gentleman named Nick was hailed as “the ice cream man” when he walked through the door carrying a dessert ... a cardamom ice cream), some bring last minute items fresh from their garden. More importantly, the potluck is where everyone feels free to try out new recipes. On that note, I’ve selected three recipes from Vienneau’s book that look interesting.
Brian’s Purple Hull Peas with Pork Belly
Serves 12 to 15
1 pound pork belly
salt and pepper to taste
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
2 cups water
4 cups freshly shelled purple hull peas, rinsed well
2 tablespoons sorghum
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup heavy cream
Score the top and bottom of the pork belly. Salt and pepper generously and place in a heavy-duty pot over medium-low heat to slowly render the fat and brown. Rotate the meat so that it eventually browns on all sides. Approximately 30 minutes.
After the pork belly browns, remove it from the pot. Increase the heat to medium and add the diced onions, garlic, carrots and celery to the pan with the rendered fat, and saute until vegetables are soft.
Return pork belly to the pot. Add 2 cups of water. Stir everything around, scraping up any browned bits. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Stir in the purple hull peas, sorghum and red pepper flakes. Add more liquid, if necessary, to cover the peas. Toss in a bay leaf. Simmer uncovered until the peas are tender, about 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that may form when the peas begin to cook.
Before serving, remove bay leaf. Remove the pork belly, place on cutting board and shred the meaty bits (remove hunks of fat). Stir the heavy cream into the pot. Add the shredded pork belly. Taste for seasoning and add a little black pepper and a dash of hot sauce if necessary. Let rest for 30 minutes before serving.
Diane Stopford’s Autumnal Cocktail
1 ripe pear
2 cinnamon sticks
3 star anise
juice and peel from 1 orange
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Pear Simple Syrup
1 pint rum
1/4 cup Triple Sec
1 cup orange juice
fresh pomegranate seeds from 1/2 pomegranate
orange slices for garnish
1 liter seltzer water (optional)
Make the simple syrup: slice the pear lengthwise in half. Remove the stem and core. Dice pear and place in a saucepan over low heat. Add cinnamon sticks, star anise, orange juice and peel, water and suger. Stir well. Simmer to dissolve sugar. Remove pan from the heat and let syrup cool. Remove cinnamon sticks, star anise and orange peel from the simple syrup and discard. Do not remove the pears.
Mix the cocktail: Pour pear simple syrup into a 2-quart container with a tight-fitting lid. Add the rum, Triple Sec, orange juice and pomegranate seeds. Cover and shake well.
Pour over ice and garnish with orange slice. Top with a splash of seltzer to lighten.
Cast Iron Heirloom Tomato and Rice Bake
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced small
1 tablespoon mined garlic
1 1/4 cups Arborio rice
2 tablespoons paprika
1/4 cup red wine (or water)
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 pounds assorted heirloom tomatoes, sliced into wedges
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
In medium bowl, dissolve the tomato paste in the water. Place an oven-safe 9-inch skillet that is at least 2 inches deep over medum heat. Add the butter and olive oil. Add the onions and saute until translucent. Add the garlic. Stir in the rice and paprika, stirring until the rice grains are coated. Add the tomato-water and wine and stir well. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer.
Remove pan from heat and cover the top well with the tomato wedges. Place skillet in hot oven and bake for 15 minutes, uncovered. The tomatoes will brown and caramelize. The rice is done when the grains are firm but nicely puffed.