From March 6th – 21st, I’m down in the bay area looking for work as a social interaction designer. I thought it would be fun way to meet people, while down here, to cook for a bunch of Hacker News folk. This is a recording of those dinners.
In the first of my Hacker News Dinner Parties, I was cooking a vegetarian feast for James and his lovely girlfriend in their Berkeley pad. James is a lone startup guy, with some really interesting thoughts about how do we remake education into a more participatory process and how do we pull in the ambient, out-of-classroom experiences to add depth and context to the learning experience. He’s also, at this very moment, on The Startup Bus on it’s way to SXSW. The Startup Bus is this crazy experiment of seeing whether hackers work like plutonium atoms. If you jam them in a tight space under sufficient pressure over enough time, will something really interesting happen or will we end up with corpses strewn along the road and a suspiciously higher incidence of cancer for the next 50 years? Obviously, anyone willing to do something so ridiculous would be fun to cook for.
Seeing as how we had to pop in to The Startup Bus sendoff party first to drink some of their beer and talk to a bunch of cool hackers, it wasn’t until 8:30pm that we actually got started on the cooking so this first dinner ended up being pretty simple but still delicious. Also, I figured out that night that having a fully charged camera battery is pretty useless when it’s not actually in the camera so apologies for the poor quality iPhone pics.
Salad of Greens, Pears, Pumpkin Seeds & Brie, Honey Mustard Dressing
The key to a good salad is contrast. This salad had the crunch from the greens & the pumpkin seeds and the softness from the pears & brie. It had bitter from the greens, sweetness from the pears & honey, salty & pungent from the brie and sour from the sherry vinegar in the dressing. As long as you follow these principles, salads are a great platform to improvise & riff from. All the ingredients for this salad were pulled out of James’ fridge because they needed to be used up. Less is more in this case, choose a few key ingredients that you want to showcase the harmony. In this case, the salad had the right balance between all of the various elements and it turned out pretty tasty.
Penne with a Roasted Bell Pepper & Grape Tomato Sauce
This is an old standby of mine which I return back to because of the purity of flavors. It’s a recipe that I developed independently although I’m sure it’s a common dish in many cultures.
At it’s core, it’s simply roasted bell peppers and grape tomatoes. Core & flatten a sheetpan’s worth of bell peppers (about 6), brush them with oil and place them under a broiler for 15 – 20 minutes. You want the skins charred and blackened so don’t be afraid that you’re burning them. Once they’re nicely charred, put them in a bowl covered in saran wrap and the residual steam from the peppers will help loosen the skins. Throw the grape tomatoes in the same sheetpan and put them under the broiler again until they’re burst and also slightly charred. After about another 10 minutes, the grape tomatoes should be cooked and the peppers are cool enough to handle so pull as much of the skin off as you can with your hands and then roughly chop the peppers into 1/2 in pieces. Put half the peppers & tomatoes in a blender & puree, then mix in the other half as chunks, correct the seasoning and mix with the pasta and serve. That’s it! The simplest version of this dish is just two ingredients! The puree provides the body for the sauce & the chunks add a bit of textural contrast. This technique also really brings out and highlights the inherent sweetness and complexity of good ingredients. Because it’s such a simple base, it’s also another great jumping off point for riffing off a theme.
At this dinner party, we sauteed some garlic, green onion & chilli flakes in some olive oil, added in some white wine and reduced it down and then hit it with a splash of lemon at the end to add a bit of zing. Basil, oregano or other herbs are great. For non-vegetarians, I commonly do this with some chicken breast, shrimp or pork tenderloin. Replacing one or more of the bell peppers with chilli peppers adds a interesting heat to the dish. It’s really a great starting off point for a lazy weekday pasta dinner.
Creme Caramel with Honey Glazed Apples
I’ve never been much of a sweets person so desserts are, admittedly, not my forte. That being said, a creme caramel is really a brainless, easy to knock out dessert. The custard base is some combination of eggs, milk & sugar. I still have to look up the proportions every time so don’t feel guilty if you can’t remember them. In this case, I used a caramel base but any sort of jam also works great as a base (Saffron-Cardamon with a Rose Petal Jelly base is ridiculous). Put them in the oven at 325 in a water bath and just cook until they jiggle like a fat man running up stairs. For the apples, peel, core & dice some apples and sautee them in butter until you get bored. Add some honey and just a little bit of lemon juice to cut the sweetness and you’re done. Simple, brainless and a very “cheffy” style dessert.
I have to say, the first of these Hacker News dinners was a resounding success. The food was good, the wine was plentiful and James was a really interesting guy to talk to. Tonight, I’m going to BayCHI (I’ll be the guy in the red fedora) so hit me up via email at [email protected] if you’re also planning to be there.