Growing up, my mother loved to host elaborate dinners; gathering family, neighbors, and the occasional stranger (soon to be friend) around our dining room table.
Her southern hospitality involved some eager prep and many delicious, considered dishes. Our dining table itself, originally built for a group of nuns in a Mexican monastery, was quite skinny and short. It forced dinner guests to squeeze their knees in and sit tight. While the diners were locked in, the dinners themselves were freeing once everything made it to the table. When people gather around and share a meal something magical happens; you forget where you are and whatever may have worried you before you sat down and cozied up for the night. When I returned home to Portland after college my mother instituted standing Sunday night dinners. While my mother’s dinners are on hold for now, Sean, Joanna and I have found comfort and healing in creating our own ritual of a “traveling” dinners.
While we have been eating more pasta, beans and other pantry items that stretch out fresh produce and grocery runs, our “traveling” dinners are our weekly occasion to go big. Our new definition of weekday indulgence is a dash of cardamom in our Swiss Miss as we slip on our sweatpants (lets be honest we don’t take them off), but Sundays are different. They are a bit more gluttonous. The premise is fairly simple: we collectively choose a region to “cook from” and seek out recipes that we’ve never thought to try and make ourselves, with the goal of making as much from scratch as possible and learning from the region of origin. The dinners require a full week of preparation and research with coordination on menu and ingredient sourcing. The anticipation has become as engaging as the meal itself, providing a dose of both precious escapism and collective healing. Each of us spends the week leading up to Sunday preparing our individual plates: whether we’re straining yogurt into labneh, pre-baking the potatoes the night ahead for the frying or preserving lemons so they provide just enough lip puckering punch. These recipes require time, which we now have more of. Preparing every ingredient has brought admiration for the care that cooks have put into feeding people since humans lit that first campfire.
We may not all have the luxury of cooking for someone else right now, or inviting friends over, but cooking and its comforts are still available and necessary. While the pandemic will continue to change how we eat, pushing us towards shelf stable, accessible and travel friendly options, we should never forget the simple joy of a delicious shared meal. Even if we cannot be together in person, we are lucky to have chefs like Samin Nosrat inviting us over for as we find new ways to connect and celebrate with good food. Order from local restaurants if you can afford to — it is a great way to show support to the chefs, servers and shop owners who make the world a more charming and culturally rich place to be. If you can’t, shopping at independent grocers and enjoying cooking for yourself is the next best thing. While we source our day-to-day pantry items from bigger grocery stores, we are focused on buying produce from local coops such as Cherry Sprout and specific items from the range of amazing mom & pop neighborhood grocers such as Fuji Emporium, and Vieng Lao. These stores have proven to be affordable while offering incredibly friendly and knowledgeable service. At a time when the pandemic threatens to flatten the diversity of , shopping at the family run stores and restaurants that make our neighborhood exciting and livable is crucial.
Spreading out shopping and buying a range of ingredients means more variety, learning and deliciousness at home. The “traveling” dinners kicked off with homemade pita, baklava, lamb and fennel stew, preserved lemon, and homemade labneh. Since our inaugural meal we have continued to make pita and labneh, falafel, tzatziki, Turkish coffee, lamb vindaloo, roti, and cardamom pistachio carrot cake. As I write this we have coconut pandan ice cream chilling in the freezer, a papaya salad in the fridge, and a pot of Tom Kha soup on the stove. While we cozy up at home, our dreams are filled with the future culinary adventures ahead. Our meals have helped connect us to our neighborhood businesses and create a space for creativity and inspiration at a time where feeling optimistic and light is incredibly difficult. Learning about history, cultures, and ingredients through food may just be the most enjoyable way to learn. It has made the kitchen the heart of our home. The mortar and pestle that sat unused for three years has suddenly become an every day tool to grind pepper, cardamom pods, dates and mint and more. We now know that with a little planning anything can be made from scratch. At the store you are paying for someone else’s time. What we once considered indulgent items while shopping such as labneh or cake are easily and affordably whipped up at home. And while we can’t invite you all over for dinner yet, we can share a few of the recipes that have lightened our moods and delighted our tastebuds:
Need help finding inspiration on where to cook from? Check out for some music to set the mood.