"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, April 26, 2010

You Can Please Some of the People Some of the Time (Post-Apocalyptic Dinner Party)

Yesterday was Sunday, and a very nice Sunday indeed. High haze did not materially interfere with bright sunlight and non-chilly temperatures. If the sky was not completely blue, neither was it spitting precipitation. It was shirtsleeves weather, and not a bad day to have a few friends over for an outdoor meal.

The friends I invited are FOAFs (friends of a friend), who have recently moved to town and been put in touch with me through a very old mutual friend. They are a perfectly lovely couple, unconventional in many of the same ways as we are ourselves, and they have two handsome boys, both on the autism spectrum, one more so than the other.

Their boys have specific dietary needs, which include no gluten and no cow dairy products (goat dairy is okay, hallelujah!). When I was planning dinner, I thought my sister's family was coming, and they have even more severe dietary restrictions. Besides being laxly kosher (no pork or shellfish), my sister is vegetarian entirely, and her son (my nephew) has a severe peanut and cashew allergy.

So, to be on the safe side I had to plan a gluten free, cow-dairy free, peanut and cashew free vegetarian dinner party. Actually, it's a little more nuanced than that. My sister doesn't care if there's meat on the table as long as it is wholly separate from other dishes. Ditto shellfish - but pork is right out. If pork is being served in any way, shape or form, they won't come. I think. I could be wrong about all this - it's just what I've informally gathered over the last several years. Also, please be advised that a gluten free meal is not as simple as avoiding wheat. Many other grains, like oats, for example, are LOW gluten but not NO GLUTEN.

I would be remiss not to mention my own prejudices, which are towards local, seasonal foods, and especially towards anything produced on the farm.

Early Sunday morning found me meditatively doing dishes and trying to imagine what I might serve. Every time I thought I had come up with something interesting, one or another of the proscribed items would rear its ugly head and laugh at me "Hahahahaha, you can't serve pasta primavera that has GLUTEN," or "Wrong, asshole, quinoa with caramelized onions is okay, but forget about the ceviche, that's totally NON-KOSHER!!!" What about pad thai (rice noodles) and chicken in peanut sauce.... oh never mind.

Finally I had a brain-wave. Indian food! I could serve basmati rice (non-gluten) and lentil dal (ditto), plus lamb and spinach curry, utilizing spinach from the garden. I'd make whole wheat tortillas (gluten) as well as corn tortillas (non-gluten). For dessert I'd break out the ice cream maker and whip up a batch of goat-yogurt coconut sorbet. Non-meat eaters could still get a complete meal with rice, lentils, and corn tortillas. No gluten is in evidence anywhere as long as whole wheat tortillas are avoided. No pork (Indians are non-pig-eaters) or shellfish.

I fulfilled my need to show off farm products by making paneer, a fresh Indian cheese, and serving it with my home grown radishes and salad greens as an appetizer. I did remember, mid-preparation, to call my friend and ask if her children could tolerate mild spices (My mother never had to deal with all this: a generation ago, people with dietary restrictions kept them to themselves out of politeness, or made excuses as to why they couldn't make it to the party. Ahh, the olden days!).

The meal was pretty much a hit, although as it turned out, the curry was a little too spicy for a few of the invited guests. I am so inured to chile that I have a hard time toning it down enough for non-chile eaters. As we were sitting around the table scarfing up Indian food, the conversation turned to books we were currently reading, and thence to the inherent instability of industrial food production (I told you; this couple is similarly unconventional - in fact, they were survivalist types long before it ever occurred to me to wonder about a future seriously divergent from the past). Not to bore you with the particulars, but we discussed greenhouse design and fruit tree cultivation; peak oil and home electricity production. As the discussion progressed to the modern homesteading movement and the lost art of food preservation, I looked at the food on the table and realized how much of it either was or could be produced on the farm.

The lamb could be goat instead. All the vegetables could be home-grown (or were). The dairy products and the eggs in the ice cream were home-grown. The sugar in the dessert could be replaces with honey from the hives. Even the beverage was iced mint tea made with mint from the garden. Really, the only part of the meal that couldn't feasibly be produced on the homestead were the starches: it's too wet for wheat here, and we don't have the acreage. Rice, of course, can't be grown anywhere within 300 miles of here (though with global warming, all bets are off). In the theoretical future, I would have to replace bread and rice with potatoes. And coconut and exotic spices of course would still have to be bought from afar.

But even with those caveats, I was struck by what a decent meal we could provide with 100% home grown stuff. Green salad, radishes, fresh cheese, meat and garden vegetables, sweets. All of this was produced with minimal inputs; mainly hay and grain for the goats.

"Well," I said, "if this is a sample of post-apocalyptic cuisine, bring it on!"

The curry I made was based on a recipe my Dad taught me, which he learned from a Pakistani roommate of his at the University of Washington, circa 1966. Here is my Dad's recipe as he taught it to me, with my modifications in parenthesis:

For six to eight people:

2 pounds stew meat (beef, lamb, or goat!)
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper or 2-3 jalapenos, depending on taste
1 tablespoon curry powder (these days there are so many choices: I use madras or kashmiri)
1/2 teaspoon allspice, ground
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
2 oz tomato paste
2 large cans spinach (that's Dad talking: I say 1 pound fresh spinach, with any mixture you like of greens such as mustard, collard, kale, turnip, etc)

In a very large saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons canola oil. Add meat, onions, garlic, and peppers, and brown, stirring with a wooden spoon. When meat begins to brown nicely, add spices. Cook 30 seconds, turning, then add tomato paste. Cook, stirring, a minute or two. Add two cups water. Bring to a boil. Add canned spinach (If using fresh greens, use this method: Wash, chop, and steam greens until tender, adding tough greens such as kale or collards first and tender greens such as spinach last. When all greens are cooked, rinse in cold water in a colander and then squeeze out excess water before adding to curry pot.). Salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer slowly at least 45 minutes while you cook rice or potatoes and heat wheat tortillas. Ladle curry into shallow bowls over rice and top with fresh homemade paneer.

In actual practice, I have used many different vegetables, from cauliflower to peas. But Greens are the best. Enjoy!


LilacCottageGoats said...

You did a great job at figuring that all out. I don't know if I could have. Thanks so much for the recipe. I think I will give it a try. But I think I might tone the spices down alittle. I can't handle that hot stuff haha.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

The curry sounds terrific! I'll tone down the spices on my first try, just in case. I admire that you arranged a menu to allow for the needs of such a diverse group.

I've found that the conversations that arise in these situations can be fascinating. People are really thinking about what they will have to deal with if things get difficult.

WeekendFarmer said...

Sounds delish!! Wow... pictures would be fun to see. i didnt realize basmati was gluten free. hmmmm. That's a challenge you had to cook with so many restrictions. I always feel bad when we have to tell people of our halal restrictions. Seafood/fish is so common now, it solves that problem. Happy Spring!

polly's path said...

Yum-and how great that you were able to come up with such a crowd-pleasing menu!

I have that mental walk (and it often turns into a dinnertime discussion)each time we eat-what came from the farm, what we bought at farmer's market, what we bought, what we could have replaced with something we grew.