This being Seattle, and the fact that you’re a reader, leads me to believe you’re either in a book club, know someone who’s in a book club, or — as I did for so many years — wish you had the time to join a book club.
Two years ago I made time, and here’s why: because my book club cooks and our monthly dinners are amazing. I’ve long thought I should show-and-tell you how amazing they really are, and this being the week for Chinese New Year’s celebration, and also the month we read “The Last Chinese Chef,” I figured that time has come.
First, a bit about my group. Some are shopkeepers while others have office jobs. One’s a beach ranger, another’s recently retired, one writes for magazines and does PR work. A few keep the home-fires burning while their husbands work. And then there’s the one who, I’m convinced, works for the CIA (the governmental arm, not the culinary institute), though she pleads the Fifth every time I suggest it. Each valiantly holds her own in our spirited discussions about the books we’ve read, and for me, spending time around the table with these smart funny women is one of the highlights of my month.
They’ve been together long before my friend Mary Kay invited me to come to one of their meetings just for grins (Mary Kay owns a bookshop and belongs to — count ’em — three book groups). The grins started when I showed up at that first meeting to find a group of like-minded women who love to read as much as they love to eat. When I arrived, they were drinking wine and snacking on appetizers and there was a long table set, quite beautifully, for dinner. That was exactly the scene at last week’s book club-night:
Trust me: when it’s at my house, the meal, eaten outdoors in August at a long picnic table, is considerably more rustic.
On the night we first met, my book club-pals were waiting to greet their invited guest — a celebrity writer! No, not me (though as I always say, “I’m a legend in my own mind”). They were excited about spending an evening with Rita Golden Gelman, author of “Tales of a Female Nomad.” Turns out the author’s daughter lived in Seattle, and Rita, a world traveler, was laying-over here for a bit and willing to be the club’s special guest. They hadn’t had an author on hand during the discussion before, or since, and while Rita and her book were quite interesting, far more interesting for this first-timer was the food! Everyone had contributed something, and the theme that night — world cuisine — lent itself to the discussion of author’s world travels.
There’s always a culinary theme to our dinners. For instance, when we read Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” we cooked French food. Whomever is hosting gets to choose the book we’ll read, and is in charge of making the entree-course while the rest of us provide the apps, sides, salads and desserts (that night I made moules marinieres). The first time I hosted, we read “Stuffed” by Patricia Volk, a marvelous memoir about a restaurant family in New York. The author’s great-grandfather reportedly introduced pastrami to the city. For dinner, I went to Roxy’s Diner and blew $40 on a whole pastrami then cooked it at home (worth it!). Served with rye bread, of course.
We read books of all sorts, fiction and non. Some of our books, like Tim Egan’s thought-provoking saga of the Dust Bowl, “The Worst Hard Time,” don’t lend themselves to feasting. But we always come through anyway. On that occasion we made the kind of foods we imagined we’d dream about if our worst hard times came calling (I made tiramisu, using extra mascarpone).
Anyway, last week, we met at Chris’s house to discuss “The Last Chinese Chef,” which I disliked. That was pretty shocking considering how much I was looking forward to reading it, thanks to the info provided on the cover copy, which says: “In her satisfying, sensual third novel, Nicole Mones takes readers inside the hidden world of elite cuisine in modern China through the story of an American food writer in Beijing.” I mean, come on! Does that sound like my kind of book, or what?
For the record, I found it unbelievable and predictable, though as a group we were divided: some thoroughly enjoyed it, others agreed with me, and the one non-cook among us, Susan the beach ranger, said she just didn’t get the whole intense Chinese cookery thing. Astonished that anyone would go to such lengths to prepare a meal, she said reading book “made me want to go pour myself a bowl of cereal.” It made me want to sit down once again and watch the opening sequence of Ang Lee’s “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” (if you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch this: it’s my favorite movie scene of all time):
As for our last Chinese foodfest, I can’t recall a better book club dinner. And in the past two years, we’ve had some spectacular ones. We began with appetizers, including these incredible lettuce cups Marisa made. We call her the “Appetizer Queen” because she always brings a starter, and whatever she makes, it’s four-star quality:
The other Nancy, a former caterer, made dumplings:
Hers were some of the lightest I’ve ever eaten, despite the fact that she used (shhhh!) store-bought wrappers. She also brought a little bottle of mustard oil, which her husband had brought back from a trip to Beijing. Imagine the Chinese mustard often served with barbecued pork, distilled into a perfume: that’s exactly what that mustard oil tasted like:
Sometimes, those of us who work are entirely too busy to cook on club-nights. So we resort to store-bought dishes, like this barbecued pork loin Sandy bought at QFC. Who knew? It was juicier and better tasting than much of the barbecued pork I eat at Chinese restaurants:
Jan brought a simple, sensational platter of sesame noodles. I, never shy, took a second helping:
Mary Kay had had a busy day, and because she was running late, instead of making hot and sour soup as she’d planned, she bought it at T&T Chinese Seafood restaurant (a place I celebrated in print several years ago for the Chinese New Year). Sometimes, when it comes to cooking, you’ve just got to ask, “Why bother?” and leave it to the pros:
Funny, I ran into Mary Kay earlier that evening at Ranch 99, the big Asian supermarket next door to T&T — where I was buying fresh gailan. I, too, was in a terrible rush that night after a long day at work. But it doesn’t take much time, or trouble, to blanch Chinese broccoli and toss it with oyster sauce. Something I did right there in Chris’s gorgeous kitchen:
As a favor to Chris, and because I’m crazy about the recipe, I prepared the entree that night, too: three whole chickens. The night before, I’d made the five-spice paste for Tom Douglas’s Five-Spice Roast Chicken from his second cookbook, “Tom’s Big Dinners” (man, I love that book!). It calls for letting the chickens marinate, in the fridge, overnight. Then I dropped them off at Chris’s house about 5 p.m. before running off to get the gailan. And when I returned, she showed me how gorgeous they looked after she’d roasted them. You should smell those aromatic birds: incredible:
We finished with dessert: bean cakes, almond biscotti and fortune cookies (here are the cakes):
And then we got the word on our next book, appropriately titled, “People of the Book.” I can’t yet tell you what we’ll be eating for dinner next month (what did they eat during the Spanish Inquisition? or in wartime Sarajevo?). But I can tell you that the minute I get a minute, I’m racing off to finish that book. It’s a stunner, and I’ve barely been able to put it down.
Because I love my book club friends, I brought them each a jar of homemade China Moon Hot Chili Oil — a recipe I’ve been preparing for years. And because I love my blog friends too, here’s that recipe from Barbara Tropp’s “China Moon Cookbook.” It’s easy to make, and the “goop” on the bottom is great mixed into rice, or noodles, or anything that needs a little zip:
Now you tell me: Do you belong to a book club? If so, what do you eat and drink while you’re discussing your latest read? And is there a book you’ve read recently that you think might enthrall my food-crazy book group?