July 25, 2012

Not Eating Out in PHL

This month's book club selection was yet another piece of blogger-to-author fruit.  While last month's selection gave us heartwrenching stories, delicious recipes, and tons to talk about, our newest read didn't provide the same effects.  "The Art of Eating In" is written by Cathy Erway, a twenty-something blogger (like ourselves) who calls Not Eating Out In New York home.  Her book, subtitled How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove, documents the two years that she spent avoiding restaurants and take-out spots while surrounded by all of the great eats available in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  The girls in the group felt we could learn something from her (we all admit to eating out too much), and liked the fact that recipes were included-- a good reason to do another potluck meeting.

The book proceeds chronologically, documenting her decision to go restaurant-free and her first forays into her own kitchen.  It then attempts to break itself into topics, ranging from adventures in bread baking, jumping on the freegan bandwagon, and entering many, many local food competitions.  Some parts of the book get a little weird, including detailed descriptions of awkward dinner parties and uncomfortable first dates.  Each "chapter" ends with a few recipes, which sometimes are related to the stories and sometimes are not.  All in all, this book was a hard read- most of us couldn't finish it due to a lack of interest.  The idea was great, the execution not so much.  However, we all still met for a potluck dinner using recipes either out of the book or found on Erway's continuing blog.

As hostesses for the event, we provided two dishes.  The first comes from the author's trip to Morocco, which occurs midway through the book.  While she clearly had to eat out during this trip, she also expanded her food options by taking a cooking class in Marrakesh.  A simple recipe of roasted peppers and tomatoes (literally called Roasted Green Pepper and Tomato Dip or Taktouka Salad) seemed like a good option for a group (although readers beware: Erway's boyfriend broke up with her the day after she made it for him).

The recipe is fairly straightforward, but the simple flavors of roasted green bell peppers, olive oil, garlic, paprika and tomatoes evolves into a savory, complex dip.  We cheated and used (good quality) stewed canned tomatoes instead of fresh, and sprinkled on some crumbled feta and chopped parsley- both for presentation and added flavor.

We served the dish at room temperature with slices of toasted baguette, but it would also go well over pasta.  I'm not sure how this is designated a "salad," but the fresh flavors made it one of my favorite dishes of the night.

Our second contribution was a recently featured recipe on Erway's blog- Fresh Zucchini and Cucumber Slaw with Nectarines and Mint.  Similar to the pepper and tomato dip, her recipe titles are certainly descriptive.  This recipe was particularly intriguing since it uses a variety of fresh summer produce, but adds a few interesting ingredients to spice it up.  Long, thin slices of zucchini and cucumber (made via mandoline and a bit of knifework) are combined with slivers of red onion and nectarine, as well as a simple dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, and mint.  Her addition of whole grain mustard had me cringing, so I left it out (perhaps I'm just not adventurous enough?).

The salad was another hit- a great side for a hot evening.  The high water content of all of the ingredients makes it very light, and the hint of mint throughout is a refreshing twist.  Most of the recipes on her blog are accompanied by item-by-item cost breakdowns, as well as "Health Factor" and "Green Factor" ratings, giving you an idea of its economical, nutritional, and environmental impact.  These features are both interesting and unique, leaving me much more interested in her blog than her book-- perhaps the freshman debut came too early?

Other dishes of the night included Stir Fried Noodles with Cabbage and Mushrooms, showcasing Erway's Asian heritage in an easy to prep, make-ahead meal that can easily be portioned out for lunches (no food carts or sandwich shops when you're not eating out!).  Another simple recipe that turned out surprisingly more interesting than the sum of its parts.

In her book, Erway recounts a brunch experience at a friend's home- as she "can't" eat out, lots of food related social encounters happen at either her home or another.  This experience led to our last savory dish, a play on nachos that utilizes a casserole style of layering tortilla chips, black beans, cheese, tomatillo salsa, and the like.  A quick bake melts everything together, while still maintaining the chip-by-chip experience of eating nachos.  Nice and easy, using ingredients you're sure to be familiar with- plus, its a dish you could eat for brunch or dinner.  

Most of the dishes throughout both the book and the blog are savory, with few options for something sweet.  Of course we needed dessert to round out the night, so a batch of Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Choc-Oat Cookies were brought by another book club member.  She admitted to making a number of substitutions, in regards to both health as well as what she had on hand, but this reflected Erway's deft ability to alter recipes to make dishes easier or more interesting.

Overall, this was our least favorite book so far.  However, we came away with some unexpected winning recipes, and I also have a better appreciation for amateur chefs.  While her writing style doesn't appeal to me, she's certainly developed quite a following with her blog.  Now, where can I find an underground supper club in Philly?

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