Hyvää ruokaa

Some friends invited me up to their house for the day yesterday. I'd been up there the week before, and the husband and wife couple each had their family visiting. Her family is from Finland, and his is from Canada, of Russian background. They both speak English, Finnish and Estonian. She speaks Swedish and some German; he speaks Russian and some French and Japanese. They've been here six years. We had a wonderful time last week, playing card games and eating chocolate and talking about a common obsession: food.
They asked me a few days afterward to come back up and cook with them on their day off. I was under the impression (due to the term with) that other people would be cooking other things and we'd all kind of contribute. She asked me what I'd like to cook and what I needed, and she'd buy the ingredients.
I was surprised but pleased to find out upon arriving yesterday that it would be all me. They'd cleared out two kitchens for me, both theirs and their neighbors' next door, as they're out of town for a month or so. There would be a few friends from the congregation, and three or four of their studies, along with the family. 11 total.
My first contribution was that fish soup I seem to be making a lot of for people. It's delicious, quick and easy. I was also excited to do a creme brulee, and I decided we'd do a lavender chocolate creme brulee, one I'd done before in America. Between two kitchens I had only a total of four burners, and the two ovens were more like large toaster ovens than real ovens, but they were convection and did the trick. They'd bought tons of red meat and a lot of great produce, and requested a beef stew.
When I started really cooking, I was vegetarian, so I cooked a lot of seafood and other stuff, but didn't do much with beef. I had a volunteer to start a rough chop on carrots, onions, celery and potatoes and a ton of garlic. I had probably.... 3 pounds of blade steak (flat iron steak before it's been cleaned of the tendony, fatty bits, so it's perfect for a slower cook) that I trimmed a bit and cubed up. Seasoned with salt and pepper and browned in a pan, just until it looked and smelled nice. Had we had some red wine and tomato paste, I'd have added it and cooked down before caramelizing the onions a bit. After the beef was all done, I divided it and the veggies between two nice ceramic pots and put them on to slow cook for about two hours.
At this point, there was a bit of absurdity. Dials were set wrong, one oven used Celsius, and one Fahrenheit, so I set one to about 180ºC or something, and i set the other one to 180 as well, but when I went to check on it after an hour, I could still touch the pot in the oven. It was 180ºF. No matter, we still had plenty of time. After blowing a circuit with the oven, dishwasher and exhaust fan all going and fixing a pipe in the kitchen, we'd gotten most of the slow cook out of the ovens (after trading one out for the creme brulee so it could cool and trimming a Halibut and making the fish soup). Put each of the pots on the broiler and got them going. All the stock and juices cooked down a bit, and the veggies were just right.
That being said, people started coming in around 7, and I'd made myself comfortable in the kitchen. The table had been set and all that was left was service. After some debate and awkward soup kitchen ladling, we started the first course. I was very confident about the fish soup. I've made it a ton before and the fish she'd bought was beautiful. After having trimmed it and done it all myself, I knew it was great. The beef stew, on the other hand, I kind of winged. It's a basic thing to make, but I was worried about the doneness of the meat, veggies, etc.
It was fabulous. It had all cooked together nicely and the meat had cooked through without drying out, and just fell apart so nicely. I was so pleased.
Creme brulee was a little bit of trouble. Pressed for time, and couldn't chill it as long as I wanted. For some reason it didn't set up as well as it should have, and the creme brulee torch was worthless for the sugar, and it wouldn't melt under the broiler either. Didn't look so great, but it still tasted wonderful. I love the combination of lavender and chocolate. Next I think I'll do an Earl Grey creme brulee, whenever I'm in a kitchen with an oven again...
That is to say, cooking is a lot of work, especially with multiple things going (in multiple kitchens), but there's something of the attention to detail, the production of something good and the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when everyone enjoys it.
After all the guests left, the Finns and I played lupaus, a card game similar to spades. We ate tons of chocolate and fruit and sipped on some whiskey and I learned how to count to 100 in Finnish and say some essential card-game related phrased. All in all, a very enjoyable evening.


Kinds of food

Been reading some very cool books lately (and not posting, obviously). After watching tons of food-related movies and television, I've started cooking a lot more lately.
One book is "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry" by Kathleen Flynn.
Another is "Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter" by Phoebe Damrosch.
"Molecular Gastronomy" By Herve Thís.
It is just too bad that I don't have a real kitchen. Two burners, no storage or counter space, no dishwasher or oven (no one here has dishwashers or ovens), horrible pots and pans. But at least I bought a nice knife set. There's a market behind my house where I can go get pretty decent produce and some meats (which I've only recently started buying since the weather has cooled off; I wasn't keen on beef and pork sitting out all day in 100º weather), but when it comes down to it, I'm left having to make pretty simple things and find ways to make them taste good. I have no good heavy bottom pans, no cast iron skillet; I have about three paper-thin pans of varying sizes and shapes, and one thicker one that feigns as a decent frying pan. Despite this, I have found things I can still cook or assemble. Thai salads are easy: cucumbers or papaya are easy to slice or shred (I bought a mandolin) and toss with fish sauce and lime and chilis and the like; I keep chicken stock on hand for soups. I usually have celery, onions, carrots, garlic around and can get something going with those. Potatoes, cabbage and bacon always make for the beginnings of some really heavy Irish type slop that tastes delicious with lots of butter and a beer... Have a few Moroccan dishes planned for this weekend, but am going to have to hunt around a bit for things like coriander, paprika and golden raisins.
The more important kind of food, though, is the kind we're helping other people here get: the spiritual kind. I have more studies now than I've ever had, and to have a chance to get to know them beyond the confines of my one-hour-a-week session with them has proved wonderful. I have this little set of studies on Saturday afternoon, right behind my house. A sister in our hall is a teacher at the local middle school, and ran into one of her former students in service. She told me she wanted to bring me by to meet him and try to start a study. I was initially skeptical of her overwhelming enthusiasm, and recall having just laid down for a nap when she called and asked me to go with her. I did. He lives at the back of my block, and was home. He's about 15, and we started the study that day. I invited him to the meeting, and told him I could go to his house and walk with him, since it's only a short distance from where we live. I got to his house the following morning and he and his little cousin were waiting outside for us. The two of them have been to the meetings every week since then. One Saturday on the study (after the young cousin, 10 years old, whose English name, hilariously, is Oscar), his older brother was home, and sat down at the computer in the next room; I was nervous to see how he would respond, but after the study, he was cordial and we all exchanged email addresses. He began to sit in on the study every week. Long story short, he asked for his own study, and is now a few chapters ahead of his little brother. He studies on Tuesday afternoons, and then sits in with his little brother on Saturday, along with the big brother's girlfriend and the little cousin. All four are attentive at the study, and I'm in chapter 7 with big brother, and chapter 5 with the other three. All but the girlfriend are now attending the meetings every Sunday and commenting or reading a scripture at least once at the Watchtower. They prepare their Watchtowers, and asked me when they can start going in service. There's so much more to say, but in short, it's one of those experiences that, as much as we as the teachers are doing, makes it clear that we can take very little credit for the progress the student makes to learn about Jehovah. It's so enjoyable, and makes ever clearer the importance of the work we're doing.