I recently had a discussion with some friends about the appeal of very long, communal tables at restaurants. I think I was the only one who likes them!
My first memorable experience of them was in Alsace, at a tarte flambée restaurant (the Alsacian equivalent of a pizza parlor). As I was a teenager at the time, and as the exotic-flavored yet still comforting, steaming, bacon-laden tartes just kept on coming until we were full, I thought the idea was brilliant. The all-you-can-eat aspect likely had nothing to do with the long tables, but they seemed to contribute to the general festive atmosphere, even though I was in a small group. That experience is my example of what dining is truly about: a gathering of people around life-sustaining food, flavors and relationships.
Jump forward to yesterday evening, around 5:15pm: I got another dose, though luckily it wasn’t the second ever, in my life (clearly I seek these opportunities). At that hour, Steve and I found ourselves parked opposite each other at one of three long and almost-100% filled tables, upstairs at Cooks of Crocus Hill. With at least 45 other people, all of whom seemed to be engaged in lively conversation, we were there for a cooking class titled “Sunday Suppers in Fall: Puerto Rican-Style”. The format was less of a cooking-skills class than a chance for chef Tracy Pena to introduce her family’s Puerto Rican cooking to a room full of hungry, adventuresome, pork-loving people. This class was one of several advertised in the cook shop’s “Porktoberfest” series, and it didn’t disappoint: pork was in the appetizer (empanadas) as well as in both parts of the main dish (pictured at right).
This was our second class at this cook shop, and though I think we both would have appreciated a little more hands-on learning, this class style certainly allowed us to just relax, learn about the cuisine, meet some interesting people, and get a little boost to alleviate our usual Sunday night “Oh-God, Monday’s coming” feelings. The first course was Tracy’s story of food with her family, most notably the importance of the rice dish in family gatherings. Every cook in an extended family has a different way of preparing it, and sometimes there is consensus as to who does it best. As such, it’s often helpful to ask the host who’s making the rice. Hopefully this doesn’t often mean that gatherings are poorly attended! Tracy’s stories were paired with a delicious eggnog-like cocktail of Coquito: spiced milk, egg, coconut, and rum with ice.
Next were some pork-filled Empanadas, which beat out the fast-food empanadas we’d had the prior day from Pollo Campero, though not by far. PC’s version had chicken, hot spices, and citrus; the Puerto Rican version was a bit more subtle and simple, though the pastry was flakier and superior.
The Arroz Con Gandules were the main course and star of the meal, with rare jewels of thick bacon and pigeon peas punctuating the savory, golden, slightly sticky rice. Accompanying it was roast pork shoulder that was perfectly tender and perfectly crispy, depending on if you got some caramelized outer pieces. A side for this course was a green-banana salad, which, other than the almost-crunchy bananas which seemed to be all texture and no flavor, I liked. The long ribbons of onions and green peppers, bright vinaigrette, and just-rightly-textured potatoes were a great complement to the warmer items on my plate, and I took a second helping.
Bookending the meal was kind of a liquid macaroon: some lemon-lime-ginger-pineapple-coconut spooned filling (basically a bar cookie that didn’t set) with vanilla ice cream. Also bookending the meal was a short empanada demo, along with a Q&A session with the chef. Steve discovered that Puerto Rican cooking is not necessarily more healthy than Cuban, as he’d been told elsewhere. Many Puerto Rican menu items are fried, including the empanadas we had just eaten, and pork appears to play a significant role. Once again, it appears that portion control is where it’s at, when it comes to healthy eating with rich cuisines.
We determined that we need another opportunity to practice portion control with this cuisine: perhaps a trip to Puerto Rico is in order, this or next winter.
My faith in long-table dining is still strong, though perhaps I’m extra fortunate to not have a huge family of my own, and to be able to attend classes like this one. I’m grateful to Cooks and to the ebullient folks, including my game husband, who helped make our Sunday night a fun, filling one.