A Simple Guide to the Potluck

From the holidays to summer parties, potlucks are a common practice to easing the burden of hosting large groups of people. Given that so many people are either incompetent cooks, thoughtless jerks or just plain lazy, often potlucks end up with too many chips, dessert and cheap beer and not enough genuinely delicious food.

Be the Hero of the Party

So my advice to you is to save the party. Actually put the effort in and bring a thoughtfully prepared, delicious self-contained meal. That is to say, make your dish satisfying enough to have alone as dinner. So this means no salads, no simple side dishes like roasted potatoes and no vanishingly light fare. You want to make a hearty, warming, filling dish. If all the other food at the party is terrible, people will be all over your delicious solution to all their problems.

Also, make it vegetarian even if you believe that all of your friends eat meat. In addition to vegetarian food keeping better over time, some of your friends may have changed their dietary habits since you last met or may have brought guests with dietary restrictions. These few vegetarian friends would have otherwise had to settle on some chips and cheap wine if not for your thoughtfulness. And keeping people like this from going hungry makes you the hero of the party.

Mystery Meat

One of the big problems with vegetarian food, however, is it’s absolutely unsatisfying to meat eaters. Making it satisfying is difficult and involves some trickery. This trickery has a name and it’s called the Maillard reaction or a particular kind of browning in cooking that we usually associate with meat. When we grill a steak or pan sear some chicken to add a satisfying brown and crusty layer, we’re producing a Maillard reaction in the surface of the meat.

Similarly to how I suggested that garlic be cooked specifically to produce a prolonged Maillard reaction, we can do the same with other vegetables and even plant-based proteins such as legumes and beans. When the reaction is produced in plant-based foods, they have the more satisfyingly full taste that carnivores usually associate with meat. As a result, you can sort of hack vegetables such that they tastes remarkably meat-like, even to strident meat eaters.

Based on the balance of proteins and sugars needed to produce the Maillard reaction, one of the best plant-based proteins you can use is the mighty chickpea. If cooked just right, meat eaters will swear that your chickpea dish contains surreptitiously added meat. Whenever I prepare these dishes, someone always asks me where I snuck the meat in.

Chickpea Versatility

Another great thing about the chickpea is its versatility. You can cook chickpeas in innumerable ways with a variety of ingredients and the result can almost always be delicious. They’re hard to mess up. To this effect, I present two very different tasting chickpea recipes below. One is beautifully light and healthy, fresh ingredient-forward and goes great alone or with crusty bread. The second dish is deeply flavor intensive, sultry smooth, spicy and weighty. Although it’s quite healthy too, you wouldn’t know it from the richness of flavor. It does best over some beautifully fragrant basmati rice.

Although both are stews and use many of the same ingredients and cooking techniques, the outcome in each case is something quite different. It’s sort of like Light and Dark Side chickpeas. During the course of cooking, one just decides to be evil in all the right ways. That said, after you’ve made both, you should be able to riff on your own chickpea recipes quite easily and no doubt solidify your place as party hero extraordinaire.

Have a question? Ask me anything!

Light-Side Chickpeas

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Ingredients – Serves Eight

350 g (about 12.5 oz or 2 cups) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in filtered water and drained
500 g (500 mL or about 2 cups) kombu dashi

500 g (about 17.5 oz or 1 large) yellow onion, peeled and diced
100 g (about 3.5 oz or 10 to 15 cloves) garlic, thinly slivered width-wise
25 g (about 30 mL or 1 fl oz) California extra virgin olive oil

150 g (about 5.25 oz or 5 cups, loosely packed) spinach, chopped
120 g (about 4.25 oz or 2 medium) fresh, ripe plum tomatoes, diced

5 g (about 1.5 tbsp) crushed red pepper
3 g (about 2 tsp) ground sweet Hungarian paprika
60 g (about 2 tbsp) kosher salt

150 g (about 120 mL or about 4 fl oz) dry white wine
25 g (about 15 mL or the juice of half a medium fruit) lemon juice
1 large sprig of fresh Italian parsley, coarsely chopped with stems

1 loaf of crusty bread, sliced

Preparation

  1. Pour the dashi and half the salt into a pressure cooker and stir over medium heat until salt dissolves fully. Add the chickpeas ensuring that they are evenly distributed and fully submerged. Add additional filtered water as necessary to ensure all chickpeas are submerged. Seal the pressure cooker and cook at 15 pounds per square inch (standard high pressure) for 45 minutes. When cooking is complete, reserve about half of the remaining liquid.
  2. In a heavy carbon steel or cast iron pan over medium heat, heat the oil to about 225 °C (437 °F). The oil will begin to “shimmer” with subtle waves moving across the surface of the oil at this temperature. Add the yellow onions and sauté until they are slightly translucent, about 8 minutes, folding them over about every 30 seconds to prevent browning. If browning begins to occur, reduce heat.
  3. Add garlic, crushed red pepper and paprika and cook until just aromatic, about one minute, folding them together with the onions.
  4. Add wine and simmer until the smell of alcohol is significantly diminished, about five minutes.
  5. Add the chickpeas and reserved dashi. Bring to a rolling simmer. Add the salt and stir. Carefully fold in the tomatoes. Add the spinach and carefully fold in. Cook until spinach is wilted, about one minute. Taste and add additional salt, if required. The dish is ideally salted when the flavor of the chickpea comes across as mildly sweet and nuanced. Too little salt and the subtle flavors are not fully realized, too much and the subtle sweetness is obscured.
  6. Add about half the lemon juice and stir to integrate. Carefully taste a full bite of the stew making sure to have all of the key ingredients in the bite. It should not be tart at this point, however, lemon acidity varies considerably. Add additional juice as required for the taste to be bright but not at perceptibly tart. If the stew begins to taste tart, add a pinch of white sugar to rebalance it.
  7. Plate and top with the parsley. Serve immediately.

Dark Side Chickpeas

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Ingredients – Serves Eight

350 g (about 12.5 oz or 2 cups) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in filtered water and drained

500 g (about 17.5 oz or 1 large) yellow onion, peeled and diced
120 g (about 3.5 oz or 12 to 18 cloves) garlic, thinly slivered width-wise
400 g (about 14 oz) can peeled plum tomatoes, thoroughly crushed
25 g (about 30 mL or 1 fl oz) California extra virgin olive oil
10 g (about 6 mL or 0.5 tbsp) Fine Italian extra virgin olive oil

2 g (about 2 tsp) crushed red pepper
5 medium Turkish bay leaves
4 green cardamom pods, seeds only, husks discarded
8 g (about 1.5 tbsp) cumin seeds
6 g (about 1.5 tbsp) coriander seeds
60 g (about 2 tbsp) kosher salt

100 g (about 3.5 oz) fresh, ripe assorted heirloom tomatoes, cut into 2 cm (about 1 in) cubes
150 g (about 5.25 oz or 10 medium) dried Smyrna figs, quartered
2 g (about a quarter medium fruit) grated lemon zest
100 g (3 medium or about 2 oz) green jalapenos, 0.5 cm dice

40 g (about 25 mL or the juice of three-quarters a medium fruit) lemon juice
4 medium green onion, thinly sliced into rounds
5 large sprigs cilantro, rough chopped with tender stems only

Eight cups of cooked basmati rice, prepared based on producer instructions

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 150 °C (302 °F). In a baking sheet, arrange the cumin seeds in an even layer. Roast until the color deepens to medium brown, about five minutes. Combine with the crushed red pepper, bay leaves and cardamom seeds in a mortar and pestle. Grind until very fine. Pour powder into a bowl and combine with just enough filtered water to create a thick paste.
  2. In a pressure cooker over medium heat, heat the California oil to about 225 °C (437 °F). The oil will begin to “shimmer” with subtle waves moving across the surface of the oil at this temperature. Add the yellow onions and sauté until they are lightly browned, about 20 minutes, folding them over about every minute to prevent charring. If charring begins to occur, reduce heat.
  3. Add garlic, spice mixture and cook until just aromatic, about one minute, folding them together with the onions.
  4. Add canned tomatoes and the salt. Bring to a simmer.
  5. Add the chickpeas, folding them in to evenly integrate them. Chickpeas should be just barely covered by the tomato juices and onion. Add a little bit of filtered water to better cover if necessary. Seal the pressure cooker and cook at 15 pounds per square inch (standard high pressure) for 45 minutes.
  6. Pour coriander seeds into a mortar and pestle and grind until fine. Add ground coriander and grated lemon zest to the stew, folding to integrate. Add the figs and lightly simmer until very soft, about five minutes.
  7. Add green onions, jalapenos and heirloom tomatoes, delicately folding to integrate. Taste and add additional salt, if required. The dish is ideally salted when the flavor of the chickpea comes across deep and almost meaty. Too little salt and the depth of flavor is not fully realized, too much and the nuances begin to disappear.
  8. Add about half the lemon juice and delicately stir to integrate. Carefully taste a full bite of the stew making sure to have all of the key ingredients in the bite. It should not be tart at this point, however, lemon acidity varies considerably. Add additional juice as required for the taste to be very mildly tart, but still balanced with the sweet figs and heirloom tomatoes. If the stew begins to taste overly tart, add a pinch of white sugar to rebalance it.
  9. Plate and top with the Italian oil and then the cilantro. Serve immediately over the rice.

 

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