Thursday, January 17, 2013

Hot Pot Dinner

In the bitter season, Chinese families warm themselves with a meal of meat, seafood and leafy greens dipped into simmering broth at the center of a communal table. By means of a small wire basket, the food is submerged in the hot liquid for a few seconds until cooked through, fondue style, and then is repaired to one’s plate where it can be dabbed in sauces having varying degrees of heat. Being a good Swiss (on my father’s side), I can relate. Dipping bread into Swiss fondue has been a favorite comfort food of mine since infancy. So when my dear friends, Henry and Lora, invited me to join them for a traditional Chinese hot pot dinner, I was eager to oblige.

The casual winter meal with friends was slated for Sunday evening. You might not know that the number eight sounds similar to the word "Fa" in Cantonese. "Fa" can mean prosperity, wealth and success or social status. When the Chinese hosted the 2008 Olympics, it was no coincidence that the opening ceremony was held on August 8, 2008 (08/08/08), at 8:08 p.m. It was no accident that exactly eight people would be dining at Henry and Lora’s classically elegant home.

I decided to let Chinese custom influence my attire for the evening. The year of the snake will be making its entrance next month, the sixth sign in the Chinese zodiac. While I’ve previously written about what a "snake" year might be like (see my post titled Ringing In The New Year), I had not previously taken note of the year’s colors. It’s pale yellow, folks. And red.   Well… I didn’t envision wearing pale yellow in January, but I could definitely do red. With maybe some orange to substitute for yellow.

Judith, left, describes her work with disadvantaged youth as
Robert and I look on.
I looked though my closet. There.   I plucked some dark red and orange striped Sufi slacks from their hanger, made by medieval clothing designer Moresca. When I last blogged about these loose, harem-style trousers (see my blog post titled Sweet Song of Vienna), I noted that I would need to shop for an orange top to wear with them. Since then I found myself face to face with a darling racer-backed tank top of orange sequins by Material Girl on sale at Macy’s. Perfect to add a little glam to the über-comfortable Genie draperies. A tank top in January seemed a bit light, however, despite the fact that I would be dining in a warm house. So next I started looking through my collection of capelets. Ooh. There was one of diaphanous silk embroidered in gold stitching with a few orange sequins scattered about. I usually am uncomfortably warm in the homes of others because I keep my own home at a very cool 63 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and even cooler at night. This delicate organza would be ideal to cover my shoulders without adding weight or warmth. I finished my look with low-heeled gladiator sandals by Limited Collection, a lucky find on my trip to Ireland last summer, adding only a beveled-glass fashion ring and some gold earrings in the shape of brilliant suns, a Chinese symbol of Yang energy. I was ready.

From left: Janet, Judith, Robert and Jesse
Along with Henry and Lora, guests included my dear friends Robert, Jan and Jesse, and two new acquaintances, Suzanne, senior editor at Baltimore Magazine, and Judith, executive director of Learning Inc., a non-profit educational institution which benefits at-risk children and teens ( Learning Inc. has designed a curriculum of rigorous academic classes intended to reach disaffected students and those with learning disabilities in the underprivileged communities of Baltimore, Maryland. Judy has become their major fundraiser (her specialty) and is always on the lookout for field trips and activities which will help her students meet their service learning requirements. And, wouldn’t you know, I happen to serve on the board of a non-profit Friends group for a wilderness area which is always in need of young people to spend their service learning hours building bird habitats or clearing trails ( Judy and I eagerly exchanged contact information. My host, Lora, a 25-year employee of the American Heart Association, helps set national research policies at the AHA and also works with the fundraising staff, where she met and became close friends with Judy before Judy joined Learning Inc. in 2003.

Henry and Lora's elegant table with the hot pot at center stage
The evening was fabulous. After a quick tour of Lora’s garden, lovely even in the throes of winter (the hobbyist gardener received her master gardener’s certificate last summer), the eight of us sipped a bubbly Muscanti Brut Cava from Spain. As Henry, owner of Baltimore’s exciting jazz and classical music venue, An Die Musik (, put the finishing touches on dinner, the rest of us engaged in lively conversation in Henry and Lora’s tastefully-appointed living room.

Called to supper, we were greeted by platters laden with jumbo shrimp, plump scallops, three different kinds of thinly sliced beef, cuttlefish balls and sliced pork. A fragrant consommé flavored with lotus root bubbled at the center of the dining room table. The two Mongolian firepots I have in my own cooking arsenal are fueled by charcoal briquettes or cans of Sterno. Henry and Lora own a sophisticated butane model which kept the flavorful broth well-heated all evening without attention.

Lora assists her husband
with preparations
Henry prepares our feast
Explaining that this was the food of his childhood, Henry  demonstrated his dipping and simmering technique, pointing out how to tell when the morsels in our little baskets were ready to eat. As our group tucked into the meal, we sipped Sebastiani Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Cypress Cuvée Cotes du Rhone and Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc.  Delightful.

A multitude of vegetables
to aid in our digestion
When it seemed we could hold no more, Henry brought out platters of Chrysanthemum greens, cilantro, savoy cabbage and watercress. He presented bowls of shitaki, enoki and oyster mushrooms. These would act as a digestif, he offered. We dug in again.

When we finally cried "Uncle", Lora unveiled a gorgeous pumpkin roll, homemade by her Aunt Paula. How could we resist that? We couldn’t, and it was marvelous.

I "rolled" myself out of there shortly thereafter, delighted that I had experienced such a splendid culinary treat and grateful for the warmth of old and new acquaintances on such an icy January night.

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