Table for One, Please

I thought I would write about an experience that I found, well, uncomfortable.

Dining alone.

I had to travel for work for a period of eight months to a town in suburban Maryland. It involved leaving my home on a Sunday night, staying in a Hampton Inn until Friday afternoon, and then I would head home for the weekend. And repeat.

Well, a girl’s gotta eat.  So I explored the area, only to find that I was working in the equivalent of a giant office park. No downtown, no cool local watering holes, just an endless amount of franchised restaurants. 5 Guys Burgers, Panera Bread, Bonefish Grill. You get the drift.

So, I would go in, and ask for a table for one.  And I was almost always met with “Will anyone be joining you?”  Nope.  Then you would get either the “isn’t that sad” look from the host, or the “what is up with you?” look.  I felt self conscious and awkward.  I could feel other people glancing my way.  I would order, eat and get out as fast as I could.

Semi-fast food places like Panera Bread weren’t as awkward, since you  basically serve yourself.  It seemed more acceptable to eat alone in places like that. But again–order, eat, leave.

Grub Hub offered some opportunity to at least get something delivered to my hotel.  The only catch was that it was usually a $20 minimum order for a delivery. That was usually more food than I needed. But I would order enough for dinner, and have something to bring for lunch the next day.  Tolerable, but limited as to selection.

I finally got so tired of eating out alone that I resorted to going to Trader Joe’s and buying frozen dinners that I could heat up in my hotel room microwave.  Sad…..

But here is the dilemma. As  unpleasant as it is to eat out alone, what would I have done if a person  asked me to join them, since they were alone as well?

Thought 1–serial killer, rapist, mugger

Thought 2–weird, chatty type who collects used paper napkins

Thought 3–I have been chosen by the locals to see if I will accept. The winner gets a free beer.

As you can see, none of the thoughts have positive outcomes. I am a solitary female in a strange city, so no way am I accepting any invitation. And isn’t that a shame. It is a shame that I can’t feel comfortable enough to accept what might be  a nice gesture from someone who knows what it is like to eat alone.  It’s a shame that my first instinct is suspicion. It is sad to be so cynical about what you perceive a person’s intentions to be.

So here is what I did.  Instead of withdrawing into my Kindle, I decided to chat up the wait staff, hosts, owners, anyone I could. And I mean chat up. My favorite experience with being the chatterbox was at an Indian restaurant. I told the host how much I adored Indian cuisine.  I asked the waiter for recommendations based on what he liked the best, not what the typical American diner would like. He grinned, and gladly shared his favorites with me, telling me all about the spices and flavors. There were Indian wines on the menu, and I didn’t know that India had vineyards. I asked about them, and the owner came to my table and told me all about how India was now delving into wine and starting vineyards.  He gave me a glass on the house.

At a Portuguese restaurant, I ordered in broken Portuguese (I learned  it a long time ago  for a trip to Portugal, and still can speak it a bit). The waiter and owner  loved the fact that I attempted to order in their language. We spoke about the traditional items on the menu. My favorite is Porco a’ Alentejana–braised pork with clams. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it; it is outstanding. They asked about my travels, and I spoke fondly of their country and how I loved the regional variety of the Portuguese cuisine.  They sat at my table, and we shared an after dinner cocktail.

Here is the beauty in this. By engaging with the owners and staff, I was no longer solitary. There was conversation, and I learned new things. By being curious and open, I was on the receiving end of the passions of the people who worked there. People who love what they do, what they create,also love to talk about it.  And they so appreciate someone who shows  an interest beyond the standard “what is your house special?” question. And, because the staff was working, no one was going to follow me to my hotel.  A plus.

I don’t have that job any more, so I don’t  travel for work. I will most likely never set foot in those restaurants again. But because I made the decision to be outgoing, I gave myself the gift of a good dining experience.

So, if you find yourself  having to dine alone, try being the chatterbox.  Even if you are in an Olive Garden, ask your waitperson something. They are probably a local student working their way through school, or a parent trying to make ends meet.  Everyone has a story to tell. And if you show them some interest beyond the Perkins Pancake menu, you may find yourself learning  more about the world.

It’s worth a shot.  Beats eating frozen dinners in the Hampton Inn.

Porco a’ Alentejana(courtesy Jean Anderson from “The Food of Portugal” cookbook)

Here is the recipe for the braised pork with clams.  It is easy to make, and it is really, really delicious.  You have to marinate the pork for 24 hours, so plan ahead. Enjoy!

Makes 6 servings

  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless pork loin cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 2 TB of a paste made from- 1 peeled and crushed garlic clove, 1 tsp of kosher salt, 1 TB of paprika, 1 TB of good olive oil
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large bay leaves, crumbled
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 TB lard or shortening
  • 1 large yellow onion peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 large garlic clove peeled and minced
  • 2 TB tomato paste
  • 18 small littleneck clams in the shell, well scrubbed and purged of grit.
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  1. Rub the pieces of pork well all over with the paste and place in a large shallow  nonmetallic bowl; add the wine and bay leaves, cover and marinate about 24 hours, turning occasionally.
  2. Heat the olive oil and lard in a large heavy kettle or pot over high heat until ripples appear on the bottom-the fat should almost smoke. Lift the pork  from the marinade (save the marinade to add later) and brown in three batches, transferring  the pieces to a large heat-proof bowl as they brown.
  3. When the pork is browned, dump the onion and garlic into the kettle, lower the heat to moderate and stir fry for 3 to 4 minutes until limp and golden.
  4. Turn the heat to low, cover and steam the onion and garlic for 20 minutes.
  5. Blend the tomato paste into the reserved marinade, return the pork  and the marinade to the kettle and adjust the heat so that the marinade barely bubbles, then cover and cook for 1 1/2 hours until the pork is fork tender.
  6. Bring the liquid up to a gentle boil and lay the clams on top of the pork, cover and cook another 30 minutes or until the clams open.  Discard any unopened clams.
  7. Season to taste with salt and pepper and ladle into large soup bowls. Serve with a chewy crusty bread and a crisp green salad.  Pair with a rich red wine.

 

 

 

 

Run For The Roses 2016

This past Saturday was the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. As a lifelong equestrian, and owner of a retired racehorse, this is one of my favorite days.  Nothing says tradition like the Kentucky Derby. For those of you unfamiliar with horse racing, this is the first leg in what is known as the Triple Crown. The next two races are the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, and the Belmont Stakes in New York. If a horse wins all three races, then he is a Triple Crown winner.  No easy feat.  Since the running of the Triple Crown began, only 12 horses have won all three races.  The first was Sir Barton in 1919, the most recent was last year with American Pharoah after a 37 year gap with no Triple Crown winners.

The race is held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky and is always on the first Saturday in May. People flock to the racetrack for this historic race day.  Traditional hats for the ladies are worn, some are incredibly outrageous. And there is the traditional cocktail of the Derby–the Mint Julep.

mint julep
Mint Julep in traditional julep cup
derby 2016 5
Some of our Derby hats

Since I love this day, I started my own ritual of hosting a Kentucky Derby Party at my house about 4 years ago.  The menu follows a Derby tradition consisting of:

Bourbon Pulled Pork Sliders

Cole Slaw

Bourbon Baked Beans

Cheese Grits

Carrot Cake

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie ( of course!)

 

derby 2016 4
Got to have the centerpiece!

Great food, great fun, but the best thing is the people. Nothing brings me greater happiness than to gather people from all walks of life.

When you host a party, you become catalyst for others.  They meet and experience people that they would not have met otherwise.  Old friends get to catch up, new friendships are forged. And you, as the host, are the creator of all of these new connections.  And then your ritual becomes a ritual for others.

This is really why I host my Kentucky Derby Party every year. I want to be that catalyst. I want to create a tradition and ritual for my old friends, and  include new friends each and every year. I want to hear about  the latest job,  graduation, loss and  gain.  I want to laugh until my sides ache from all of the funny tales. But most of all, I just want to watch my  friends sharing a good time in a ritual that has become a part of all of their lives. Their laughter, their presence in my home, is their gift to me.

 

derby 2016 ladies

All the Lovely Derby ladies!

Thanks to all who attended this year. It was my great pleasure to have you all in my home. See you next year on the first Saturday in May!

Derby Party Recipes

Here are the recipes that I always have at my Kentucky Derby party.  Enjoy!

Mint Julep

The key to a successful mint julep is really good bourbon.  Get the good stuff, do not skimp here.  My favorite is Buffalo Trace or Woodford Reserve.   A julep calls for fresh mint to be muddled in each glass, but I have found that to be time-consuming, plus I end up with pieces of mint in my teeth! My solution is to infuse mint into the simple syrup.

To make the simple syrup, you will need equal parts water and sugar.  I did 3 cups of each, and that is enough to serve 30 people multiple drinks. Boil the water and sugar mixture until the sugar has dissolved.  Take at least 10 stems of mint, more if you like, and bruise in a mortar and pestle. Take the sugar mixture off of the heat, and toss the mint in the hot mix.  Allow the mint to steep until the desired mint flavor is  achieved, at least 15 minutes.  Strain the syrup through a fine sieve or cheesecloth to remove the mint pieces.  Refrigerate until it is cocktail time.

Mint Julep Recipe

  • 1 1/2 jiggers of bourbon
  • 1 jigger mint simple syrup
  • crushed ice

Put two heaping tablespoons of crushed ice in a cup. Add the bourbon and simple syrup and stir.  A splash of club soda is optional.

Bourbon Slow Cooked Pulled Pork –recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson

  • 2 lb pork shoulder
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup bourbon (you can use the cheaper stuff to cook with)
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  1. Season the pork with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides and place in a slow cooker.
  2. Scatter the onions around the pork.
  3. In a large bowl, mix the brown sugar, bourbon, soy sauce, mustard and ketchup. Pour over the pork.
  4. Set the slow cooker to low and cook for 8 hours.
  5. At then end of 8 hours, remove the pork and let it rest for 15 minutes.
  6. Using an immersion blender or regular blender, blend the onions and sauce to a smooth mixture.
  7. Shred the pork with two forks and mix some of the sauce with the pork. Serve with the extra sauce.

I used 10 pounds of pork for 30 people, adjust the quantities as you need. I cooked the pork the day before, then returned it to the slow cooker and heated it up for the party. Easy!

Cheese & Garlic Grits –-Chef Mark Williams

  • 3 1/2 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup ground corn grits-regular or quick cook
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, diced
  • 3 large eggs,  yolks and whites separated
  • 1/3 lb grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup minced garlic (prepared minced garlic is what I use)
  • cayenne pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 375F.
  2. Add salt to water and bring to a boil.
  3. Slowly stir in the grits.
  4. Simmer, stirring frequently until grits are soft, less time for the quick cook grits. Add the butter and remove from the heat.
  5. Add the cheese, garlic and yolks of the eggs.
  6. Allow to cool before adding stiffly beaten egg whites.
  7. Lightly fold in the egg whites and pour mixture  into a buttered souffle dish or high sided  casserole dish.
  8. Bake until golden brown and firm in the center, about 30 minutes.
  9. Serve warm.

These are a little bit of work, but so worth it.  They come out light and fluffy, like a souffle. I tripled the recipe for 30 people, and used two casseroles. I also only used 1/2  a cup of garlic for the tripled amount.  Personally, I think that 1/2  cup of garlic  for the single recipe is overpowering, but add to your taste.