Since nearly a year ago, I’ve been cultivating a small, dedicated, cautious band of creative weirdos. We are, as they say, a “pod.” Keeping each other safe, (reasonably) calm, fed, supported, and even occasionally entertained has been the work of this strange time.
This tiny group has fluctuated as the needs of its members change: when one of us needs to take on increased risk, for work, or a family emergency, or any one of the myriad challenges we’ve brushed up against this year, we duck out for a few, rescind our “inside privileges,” and wait until we’re in the clear to be able to give each other hugs again.
The separations usually feel awful (they always seem to occur around someone’s birthday), but we’re fortified by the knowledge that we’re doing it for the right reasons, and that plenty of folks have had it harder than we do, and we’ve all tried to train ourselves to be better at hanging out outside instead, as needed.
The main thing is, we still need to eat, and if your instinct to feed people when you gather socially is anything like mine, this presents some unique challenges. Our usual method of sharing a meal with each other — big family-style platters, communal dipping bowls, delving into great piles of things with our fingers — are irresponsible in these awful times, and so we have to recalibrate how we do things. Also, my word, it’s gotten cold.
The good news (the word “good” being used here loosely, as you can imagine), is that you’ll need to build a fire to keep yourselves warm, and food cooked over fire always tastes better.
Sausages are my personal favorite — individually portioned, they stay hot in the middle for a long time, you can eat them in a bun, or from a stick, or out of your fist like a caveman.
Vegetables need only to be seasoned with salt and a bit of oil to be made charred and delicious over a fire. I love oyster mushrooms cooked this way, just torn into big lobes. Whole broccolini go charred and crispy on top and tender in the stalk. And, if you put whole radishes into a packet of foil with a knob of butter and some salt, and just forget about it on top of the fire while you cook other things, you’ll have created something you’ll remember for a long time.
It’s important to keep things absurdly simple. This food is going to be special because you’re all working hard to be together.
My main trick as far as cooking that doesn’t require attention on top of the hot fire is about individual portions. A personal cheese plate for everyone: cube up whatever cheese you like best, a few crackers, a few slices of salami, something pickled or some halved figs, toss these into the little to-go containers you save for leftovers, and leave them at everyone’s chairs before they arrive. You’ve essentially made an adult “Lunchable,” and you’re a hero.
The thermos, something most of us haven’t thought about since they were in our lunch boxes, is also doing a tremendous amount of work in my social life. I brought two of them, full of hot toddies, on a winter walk with a friend, and it felt like we were on vacation. They also make a potluck easy work. If everyone brings a thermos of a favorite soup to sit around the fire, you can make some grilled cheeses in 10 minutes and call it a meal. It tastes good because at least you’re together, and you’re doing your best.
I was rather fortuitously given a copy of Ella Risbridger’s phenomenal Midnight Chicken (and other recipes worth living for) last winter. In it, she has a section devoted to picnics in every season. She begins with a page all about “Pocket Potatoes.” A baked potato wrapped in tin foil, she points out, is both a pocket warmer and a reward for reaching your destination in the cold.
“There is almost nothing nicer than the puff of domestic-smelling steam that rises from a newly split, well-baked jacket potato,” she writes.
Whether you bring your own pocket warmer, or give them to your friends around the fire, you’ll be doing your best, indeed.
Twice-Baked Pocket Potatoes
Russet potatoes, 1 for every person
Sharp cheddar, grated
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Prick your potatoes with a fork in a few places, rub them with olive oil and plenty of salt, and wrap them individually in foil. Bake until tender, usually 90 minutes, but I always check them after an hour, hoping they’ll be done. When they’re tender enough to pierce easily with a fork, leave them unwrapped until they’re cool enough to handle.
Cut the top ¼ off each potato, and carefully scoop out the insides, leaving a bit of potato around the outside so that they don’t fall apart. Mix the warm potato flesh with the butter, sour cream, and cheddar (you know how much of each you like — use that much). Taste and season with salt and black pepper to your liking.
Distribute the potato mixture amongst your potato shells, filling them all the way back to the top, and sealing with the “lid.” (There will usually be a bit left over. That’s your reward — eat it right away.)
Wrap the stuffed potatoes tightly in foil and put them back in the oven until they’re hot all the way through, about 20 to 30 minutes.
If you are gathered around the fire, and want to look like a whole genius, tuck your stuffed, foil-wrapped potatoes into the coals, a little bit away from the flames for about 15 minutes to reheat them. Pull them out with tongs, brush the ash off with an old oven mitt or kitchen towel, and distribute them to your amazed friends — who will love them as they are or will add any additional toppings they might have at hand.