From Spain

Barcelona: Thanksgiving Dinner for 46

Every year since who knows when, our friend Frank Plant has hosted Franksgiving in his fantastically cool digs in Barcelona. By the time we got around to attending, it had already grown from a cozy meeting of close friends into an insane, overcrowded phenomenon, and shrunk back to a more manageable size. If you can’t be ahead of the curve, it’s a lot better to be well behind it.

Turns out that “more manageable” now means 46 people. That’s 46 people expecting Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, even if they’re Spanish and don’t really get the whole deal and wonder why we insist on eating the exact same thing every year, and without even any pork in it.

When Peter and I told Frank we’d finally be able to come, Frank drafted us for kitchen duty. Which is no surprise–I think every time we’ve visited Frank, we’ve wound up cooking dinner. Though usually only for about 20.

So, uh, this time it would be 46. Did I mention that already? Last time I cooked for that many people, for a friend’s wedding in 2002, I nearly had a breakdown I was so exhausted.

Peter did the turkey. Two Dutch friends, the Statler and Waldorf of the whole event, were complaining about previous years’ turkeys, so Peter took the bait–he’d brine those birds and smoke them.

This also freed up Frank’s rather tetchy oven for other work. Honestly, I have no idea how he’s pulled it off in years past.

But he’s done it. He has a vision, and he has shopping lists. And he has a crew of people at the nearby Hostafrancs market who were delighted to help. We picked up three turkeys from the poultry stand, where the sturdy ladies use a set of counter-mounted shears to ka-chunk carcasses into pieces. We loaded up on snacky things and sherry vinegar. We snagged some rare radicchio for this bean salad thing Frank wanted to try.

Then we got down to business. Or tried to. Peter went up to the terrace to assess the grill for smoking. As he was poking around, the whole bottom of it dissolved in a shower of rust.

I learned in 2003, when Peter and I had to build the rigging for a lamb roast, that if you’re going to embark on an improbable dinner scheme, then someone involved should be a welder.

Handily, Frank is one.

Safety first!

He patched up the grill, and even added a little smoke chimney and built Peter a rake for the coals.

Good as new! Nothing a little aluminum foil can't fix...

Once the birds were squared away, we could get down to kitchen business.

Here’s where the story gets boring. Thanks to a small army of volunteers chopping onions, peeling potatoes and running out to the store, everything went so smoothly I thought I was forgetting something.

That left me time to concentrate on my favorite thing: gravy. I made about half a gallon. My capacity for portion assessment ends at about 20 people–after that, I just imagine the Mongol Horde.

Periodically Frank would pop by the kitchen and ask how everything was going. And he would say exactly what I was thinking: “Shit! 46 people!”

One time Frank rolled through, I put him to work slicing the radicchio. Ah. Turned out it was red cabbage. Classic grocery-shopping-in-a-second-language issue. We rolled with it.

At this point, I have to give credit to Spain as a whole, despite their lack of radicchio. Were it not for its customary insanely late dinner hour, we would’ve been screwed. But with guests arriving at 9pm, and aiming for a sit-down time of 10pm, not only was everything done well ahead, but I even had time to take a shower and change into turkey-fat-free clothes. I hereby propose American Thanksgiving be forthwith considered a late-night affair. That traditional afternoon start is a bitch. No wonder everyone falls asleep.

Anyway, meanwhile, upstairs, the heavy lifters and Anna’s thorough vacuuming (which sounds better in its Spanish-cognate form, ‘aspiration’) had transformed Frank’s workshop into a banquet hall.

The stage is set.

Peter pulled the by-now-gorgeous birds off the fire.

And Jim got to carving.

I'm impressed that Frank's kitchen even has an electric meat slicer!

We gave everything a little reheat, tossed the candied walnuts in the now-red-cabbage-and-green-bean salad and ladled out the gravy. There was plenty to go around.

And, magnificently, room around the table for all 46 people.

Places, everyone.

The photo of Jim carving comes courtesy of Jan, the Dutch Statler, who at least admitted the turkey was better than it was in years past. And all agreed the red cabbage was far better than the radicchio would’ve been–happy accidents.

Another way we should tweak American Thanksgiving: have dancing after. Thanks Drew, Jim and Kris for rocking it till the break of dawn.

Dude. That boom box blinks in time with the music. Frank is a genius.

The next day, which was surprisingly un-fuzzy, considering the dancing till dawn, we rolled out on the train to Verona.

Guess what vegetable they just love in Verona and seemed to be selling at every corner market? Radicchio. Whatever. Over it!

I could end on this note, but it seems a little dishonest–it sounds like I just whip up this kind of party all the time, no prob. In fact, over the past five or six years I’ve gotten burned out on these heroic-cooking events (yes, after publishing a cookbook that’s very much in favor of such events). I got sick of being frantic and never getting to talk to anyone properly, or even enjoy the food, and now Peter and I are happy to have six or four or even just two people over for dinner. But Franksgiving was a great example of how these events are so inspiring when they go right, when the prep is really just a pre-party, a great chance to chat while prepping mounds of vegetables, and to solve problems on the fly. Thanks to Frank for reminding me.

*********

Here’s the rough logistics, should you be up against a similar killer situation:

For 46 people:

  • 3 turkeys, about 18 kilos. We had two of them cut into quarters, for easier maneuvering/faster cooking on the smoker. We used the backs to make stock.
  • 9 or 10 kilos potatoes; boiled them ahead in the morning, then ran most of them through a ricer about an hour before serving. 20 minutes before serving, mashed up with melted butter, hot milk.
  • 6 kilos sweet potatoes; parboiled in the morning. Made syrup of brown sugar, tangerine juice, Cointreau and poured over sweets in baking dishes. Dabbed with butter, topped with toasted hazelnuts and baked in last 20 minutes before serving.
  • 2 kilos green beans, 4 small heads of (ahem) red cabbage, about 500g feta cheese and 500g walnuts. (It was this recipe to start with. Oh well.) The night before, candy the walnuts. Dressing was a standard vinaigrette: garlic, mustard, sherry vinegar, olive oil, a squeeze of honey.
  • 2 kinds of cranberry sauce: Mama Stamberg’s crazy business with horseradish (really! have never eaten this–turns out it’s actually good), and a cooked sauce with orange peel, 2 bags of cranberries each. Made both of these the night before.
  • Stuffing…I couldn’t tell you. A bit of a blur. Reheated it for about 20 minutes, about 40 minutes before sit-down. If you have an oven with two racks (likely), you could do it at the same time as the sweets.
  • Half a gallon of gravy is, it turns out, definitely too much.

Top 10 Food and Travel (mostly) Highlights of 2009

Everyone’s got a top 10 list! So I will too. I don’t know why I don’t do them more often–I certainly love making lists.

Like a lot of people, I’m coming away from this year feeling like it was pretty craptastic. But the nice thing about making a list like this is that you (I) realize there were some really good concrete things that happened, or that I managed to pull off. The crappiness, I think, just comes from feeling overworked and generally unfocused. And, of course, the creeping realization that there will never come a day in my freelance life when I get so fabulous that people are beating down my door offering me work. In fact, I will continue to have to rustle it up myself. Which, you know, is why I’m going on vacation for the next three weeks. (Holy crap! To Asia! Never been to the other side of the world!)

What I’m pretty pleased with, in no particular order:

1. I made croissants! This is fresh in my mind because it happened just a few days ago, only nominally fulfilling my 2009 resolution to work with yeast dough more. I can’t tell you how miraculous it is to make these things. I actually laughed out loud with delight the first time the dough rose. Simple (borderline idiotic) pleasures.

croissants 029

2. I traveled for a month in Mexico and did not get shot, kidnapped, ticketed or asked for a bribe. Actually, this is not such an accomplishment. Contrary to everything you read in the newspaper, Mexico is not a war zone. Allow me to briefly hijack my top-10 list for a mini-lecture: not going to Mexico because of the drug war is like not coming to the US because of the drug war. San Cristobal de las Casas, Merida and Tulum are a world away from Juarez–just like, say, Seattle is a world away from inner-city Baltimore.

3. I hiked for nine days and did not die. Granted, this was about the most pansy-ass form of hiking–traipsing merrily from village to village in Andalucia, stopping for many glasses of tinto de verano along the way, carrying nothing but some almonds and a change of clothes (and barely that). But there were real mountains! We were up at 2,000 meters! And we hiked by moonlight once! But the biggest miracle of all is that both Peter and I, dedicated urban travelers, actually had a nice time out in nature, and thought we might do it again. Next up: hiking across an island in Greece.

Sierra Nevadas

4. I jogged. Sure, it was only twice around the track. But, honestly, it’s something I’ve never done in my life. It was right after the Spain hiking trip. Peter and I were jet-lagged and feeling like we needed to capitalize on our newfound fitness. It was satisfying. But then I got horrifically sick for the next week. A friend told me that’s normal when you first start running–all these toxins get pushed out. Sadly, I have not jogged again since.

5. I stayed at a ridiculously nice resort in Mexico, on assignment. I know, this isn’t really much of a personal accomplishment, and I’ve stayed at nice places before. What made this one nice was that it was free of schmoozing (my expenses were paid; I was incognito). And for once in my travel-writing life, I managed to get all the work done that I needed to do beforehand, so I really could just lie on the beach and wave at the waiter for a margarita. The funny thing is that now that I’ve done that, I really have no huge craving to do it again.

ff6. I wrote a cookbook. Oh, yeah, that. The high point and sense of accomplishment came mostly in the last days of the manuscript-tightening process, at the very beginning of this year, and not actually at the time of publication, in October. This is because, by the time the book came out, there’d been so much wrangling over the layout, and of course, the title, that it was a chore to even think about the book. And in the interim, I’d also written large portions of three other travel guides, which effectively erased Forking Fantastic! from my mind. Can the publishing industry speed up, please, at least just so authors can get more of a thrill out of the process?

7. I became a “guru.” On the basis of the wit and charm and deep, deep knowledge displayed in Forking Fantastic!, Tamara and I were on The Brian Lehrer Show every week this December. It’s kind of hilarious to hear yourself introduced as a “holiday entertaining guru.” And I love Brian Lehrer–hardest-working man (along with his crack producers!) in public radio. We got some excellent calls too. The segment on holiday food traditions made me so proud to live in New York City.

8. I cooked dinner for Jamie Oliver (as shown on TV in 2009). Speaking of being proud to live in New York: Back in late 2008, Tamara and I taped a segment with Jamie Oliver, for his series Jamie’s American Road Trip. Seeing how I’ve loved Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks since early, early days (like, Naked Chef days) and I’m floored by all the cool food advocacy he does in Britain, it was really an honor to meet him. But that was technically the year before.

The real honor came when I finally saw the finished episode, which focused entirely on food in Queens, and especially on immigrant culture. Honestly, I cried the first few times I watched it. The Peruvian ladies with the secret restaurant! Colombian George, who feeds homeless illegal immigrants! The Chinese noodle dude! The ranchero musicians on the subway! It was great TV, and I felt proud to have had a hand in it (I directed them to Ali and the live-poultry place). Unfortunately, it hasn’t been picked up in the US, and likely won’t be, and there are only a few clips online–here’s one (ignore the freakout about the live-poultry place; oy).

podcastlogo9. I started Cooking in Real Time. If you’re not subscribed to my home-cooking podcast, go ahead and do it now. It’s like that Cookalong with Gordon Ramsay thing, except it’s not a ridiculous variety show, and it actually teaches you something.

What I’m really proud of, though, is that I designed the logo and header, and built the website myself. OK, so the site was mostly template-tweaking, but it was still immensely satisfying to learn how to control all these little elements. It was very nice to have a project that ended with a concrete result (aside from cooking, which is my usual make-stuff-with-my-hands outlet) and that involved both creativity and code-cracking. Unfortunately, just this week, I dropped my voice recorder on the floor and broke it, so now CiRT has to go on hiatus while I’m away in January.

10. I painted the dining room pink and orange, with gold trim. The vision of the Bollywood dining room, finally realized! The real accomplishment here is that I triumphed over decision paralysis, as presented by 8 million paint chips, and finally picked some colors. Plus, I exploited visiting child labor to get the painting done.

Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynoldsphoto courtesy of Katja Heinemann

Happy new year, everyone! Here’s to an exciting new decade! Health care and croissants for all!

The Sangria of Queens; or, How to Use Fresca as a Mixer

On our Spain hiking trip, Peter and I swilled tinto de verano at every opportunity. It is the perfect wine-y refresher when it’s hot. (Beverly and I drank a lot of it on our earlier trip too, even though it wasn’t quite verano in April.)

For years, I thought tinto de verano was just red wine and lemon soda. Turns out there are subtleties–such as a splash of sweet vermouth, or of sweet sherry. And if you walk into a bar in Abrucena, Almeria, the woman proprietor offers to add a few drops of lemon essential oil to the top of it, for a beautiful perfume.

An excellent guy we met, who’d worked in the French wine industry for a decade, and clearly had a palate, explained the logic of the drink to us. “The base is all about dry–dry red wine, plus the driest soda you can find. In fact, they often use diet soda, because it’s not so sweet.”

Diet soda? We hate diet soda. Except, apparently, for when it’s mixed with red wine and vermouth. And at home, we certainly like Fresca.

Pues, here we are, in the heat of summer in New York City. And we are cheerfully drinking the official summer drink of Winslow Place: the Winslow Red, aka Tinto de Winslow, aka the Sangria of Queens.

I highly recommend: equal parts cheap-ass red wine (we buy $7 liter bottles of Greek red, to make it more authentically local) and Fresca, with a slosh of sweet vermouth on top. Pour over ice and garnish with lemon and orange slices. Makes an excellent pitcher drink.

Spain Hiking Photos

Photos of the grand Spanish hiking excursion are up, all over at Flickr. Lots of pics of us looking winded and sweaty on hillsides, and some beautiful tomatoes and a very silly video of Peter trying out all the public gym equipment they have in the villages.

Also, there’s a separate set from our afternoon of “fonting”–kind of like birding, but looking for obscure fonts. And boy, there are some doozies in Granada. (AV, why did you never mention this? It seems so right up your alley… And the Auto Escuela Dorado right by your apartment!)

The photos contain the juiciest anecdotes, but let me just say, in brief: Peter and I may actually live to hike again. It’s hard to believe, but we enjoyed ourselves. Peter was such a convert, in fact, that he walked home from the East Village the other night. I’m not giving up my bike anytime soon, and I still feel a little embarrassed about being seen in public with a backpack (ooh, a matching backpack with Peter’s, no less! That’s what happens when you emergency shop on the day before your flight). But it was a good trip.

And as a guidebook-updating gig, it was fantastic. I could only travel so fast, and was not expected to travel any faster, which is the exact opposite of any trip involving a car and an impractical number of small towns. But I still didn’t manage to buck the Curse of the Missed Swimming Pool. This occurs whenever I have a night planned in a really nice hotel, and I think, “Ooh, maybe I’ll just be able to check in and chill out by the pool that afternoon!” No. Inevitably, my schedule gets jacked up, and there is no swimming or sunning or anything, after I check in at dinnertime, totally pooped. On this trip, it meant that the night we were scheduled to stay at the really lovely place, we got lost near the end of the day, finally found our way, slogged through the river bottom and clambered up the hill just as the sun set and a cold shadow was cast over the pool. We swam anyway, but it wasn’t what I had envisioned.