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Raising the potluck bar

A supper club of ambitious amateur chefs takes themed dinners to the next level.

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"Do you want me to help you plate?" Shannon Hruza asks her friend Jason Budd. It's not a question you typically hear at potlucks, but this is also not your typical potluck. The 14 guests are on the fifth course of approximately a dozen; the theme is Brazilian, and already there's been pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), empanadas, ceviche, moqueca (a traditional fish stew made with coconut milk), and cachaca cocktails. At one end of the table is a bookcase crammed with Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home, a five-volume set of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, The Oxford Companion to Beer, and Food: The History of Taste, among hundreds of other volumes.

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As Budd's dish gets passed around (in the end, he decided against plating each portion individually), he describes it: flatiron steak cooked sous vide and finished on the grill, topped with a chimichurri sauce. He might have done more, he says, but he ran short on time. Someone jokes that sous vide is usually her go-to method, too, when time is running short (the technique involves slow-cooking food in a water bath at the desired final temperature).

In fact, two guests have cooked sous vide meat for the meal, and one of them has built his own sous vide machine—yet none of these diners are professionals. At least not exactly. Justin Behlke runs an underground supper club called Thurk, offering a 17-course tasting menu of Scandinavian-influenced local food; he spent two weeks last summer staging at Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant that's widely considered one of the best in the world. (It was a good learning experience, he says, but a little too competitive for his taste; this fall he'll stage at In De Wulf in Belgium, another Michelin-starred restaurant.) And one of the founding members of the group, Iliana Regan, is now the chef of Elizabeth Restaurant. She's not here tonight, though; it's a Saturday and she has a restaurant to run.

It was through Regan that the group started in the first place. Shannon and Nick Hruza (the hosts tonight), Ashley Amato, Jen Moran, and Katie Burgoon met during a mushroom-foraging expedition that Regan organized in 2011. They talked about food, connected on Facebook, and later went out to dinner at Telegraph, where they decided to form a supper club. Regan suggested they have themes, and threw out an idea for the first one: "Midwest, spring 1952."

"1950s food is surprisingly bad," says Melissa McEwen, who missed the mushroom-hunting trip but has been a part of the supper club since the first dinner, in March 2012. Since then, themes have included Apicius (ancient Roman), Victorian, Jacksonian south, Viking, and Mesopotamian. The second dinner was "Iron Chef: sardines."

Some meals have been more successful than others. Budd hated a lot of the food at the Viking dinner, he says. "It's just not a delicious culture." That was the dinner where someone brought a bunch of Icelandic salt cod, which according to McEwen—who hosted—is very hard. "He brought a mallet over to my house and was smashing it in my kitchen, and I was like, maybe you should do that outside."

Shannon Hruza thinks that it's more difficult to make foods from older time periods taste good. Ancient Romans, for example, didn't use a lot of salt but did have a liberal hand with the fish sauce; one dessert from the Apicius dinner was peaches with fish sauce. Hruza says that's part of the point, though: "It challenges your brain to think in a different way. It kind of gets you to break out of your routine."

I went to the Apicius dinner last summer while working on an article about Iliana Regan and was impressed by the skill of the cooks, the amount of time and research that had gone into their dishes, and how good—and yes, odd—the food was. The Brazilian dinner was even more delicious, if less unusual. "It's not like it's a barbecue," says Hruza. "You get into it. Sometimes it takes a couple days to make a dish."

A couple of the members have formal training—Amato is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and recently started doing prep work at Elizabeth Restaurant; Behlke has been trained in classic French cooking—but mostly, they're self-taught perfectionists. "We're a club of anal, obsessive people," Amato says.

JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel

The flatiron steak with chimichurri sauce is followed by black bean soup, braised goat shoulder rubbed with cacao, feijoada (a stew with beans, beef, and pork) with kale chips, pork spare ribs, and collard greens with bacon. By the time the last savory dish arrives—tri-tip steak with infused butter—everyone's stuffed to bursting. Then there's dessert: cuscuz de tapioca (tapioca pearls, sweetened condensed milk, coconut, and sugar) and rum balls with cachaca instead of rum.

After dessert they pick the next theme: everyone writes an idea on a piece of paper and puts it into a bowl, then it's down to the luck of the draw. Amato's idea—"Kerala, India," which is southern Indian cuisine—will be up next. They've been in the Hruzas' apartment for approximately five hours at this point, and some might hang around for at least a couple more.

"I went on this mushroom-hunting trip, and it literally changed my life for the better," Shannon Hruza says. "If I didn't meet these people, my life would be really boring."

JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel

Justin Behlke's moqueca (seafood stew)

Serves 8-10

Fish stock
(makes about 2 quarts)

2 lbs fish bones
2 medium onions, sliced thin
2 carrots, sliced thin
10 cilantro stems
10 parsley stems
¼ c white wine
Water

Saute onions, carrots, and fish bones over medium heat until the vegetables start to become translucent and the bones start to turn white. Add cilantro and parsley stems and cook five more minutes. Add wine and allow to cook off completely before adding just enough water to cover. Simmer for ten minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for ten more minutes to allow for greater infusion of all of the aromatics. Strain and set aside.

Tomato broth

3 medium onions, sliced thin
1 medium-large bulb of fennel, sliced thin
10 cilantro stems
2 cloves of garlic, smashed
16 oz strained tomatoes
2 qt fish stock
1 qt water
Salt
Pepper
Lime juice
14-oz can of coconut milk

Cook onions, fennel, and garlic in a small amount of oil. Add cilantro stems, tomatoes, fish stock, and water. Simmer for two hours. Remove from heat, take out the cilantro stems, and stir in the coconut milk. Place contents in blender in batches and puree. Pass the broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a mixing bowl and season to taste with salt, pepper, and lime juice.

2 lbs firm white fish such as cod or halibut
1 lb mussels
1 lb squid, sliced into medium-thick rings
1 lb shrimp, cleaned and deveined
Cilantro leaves
Cooked white rice

Season the white fish with salt and place pieces in a pot over medium heat until they get a little color on each side. Add mussels and a few cilantro stems, place cover on pot, and allow to steam to open up the mussels. Once mussels are open, add the tomato broth and let the mixture come up to a gentle simmer. Add the shrimp and squid and cook for about ten more minutes at a gentle heat so the squid doesn't overcook. Season with a little more salt and lime juice and serve with fresh cilantro leaves and rice.

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