Conquering SoCal with Celery and Chicken

Frolicking around California was something I wanted to do during my trip to the Bay, so when my old friend Rachel from Berkeley City College got in touch, I had to ask the awkward question: do you want to hang out again after ten years, and crucially, can I crash on your couch? To my great surprise, she agreed, and I booked a cheap flight to San Diego a couple days later. A lovely journey (with a free upgrade!) later and she collected me at the airport with a big hug and that familiar smile that I hadn’t seen since we were meandering the streets of downtown Berkeley having loud inappropriate conversations. She had mentioned she was living in a co-op and didn’t give many more details, so I went in somewhat blindly and was filled with wonder at the lovely surroundings. A slightly messy but well loved garden, complete with banana and loquat trees and shockingly quiet chickens, opened the scene. Her little house was warm, welcoming, and smelled like sage and sunflowers. I immediately felt at ease in this community setting.

After a great day exploring beaches, I decided to pitch in and volunteered to cook dinner for her and her thirteen housemates. This ended up as an endeavor as everyone was following a different diet. This went from strict veganism to cleaning a whole goat head in the kitchen sink at seven AM. So what made the most sense was to go with the old standbys, chicken wings and soup. Economical crowd pleasers that genuinely highlighted the quality of ingredients, this was certainly the way to go. A trip to the best butcher in town and I had three pounds of wonderful chicken wings ready to go. But these weren’t to be American-styled wings deep fried and covered in sticky barbecue sauce, though those are glorious in their own right. No. These would be Israeli wings employing my good friend’s recipe, or at least a variation to avoid a mess largely composed of chicken fat and rock salt. (See “Almog’s Chicken Wings” in Picky Tongue: The Cookbook).

I’d spotted a huge cardboard box filled to the brim with local produce, but Rachel had mentioned her co-op had received a donation of fifty pounds of onions and a case of celery. This was great! The first thing that came to mind was the cream of white onion soup featured in the Idiotproof cookbook. Then reality hit: onions affect me like tear gas, and the idea of even a rough chop on enough of them to feed the gang…forget it. Then I remembered the lovely celery veloute that took center stage on my dinner table a few months back. A very simple soup highlighting an unappreciated ingredient, it could be adapted to anyone’s diet. Naturally I had finished that one with cream and butter, but these were superfluous ingredients that did very little but feed my glutinous tendencies.

So four o’clock came around and the cooking could finally commence. Rachel gave me two options: either to cook in her little kitchen where I wouldn’t disturb a new housemate learning to negotiate her living space, or to set up shop in the large and extremely well equipped outdoor space with the eight burner stove and professional grade appliances. If only to overcomplicate my life, I decided to set up in both kitchens. It was crucial for the soup to have time to simmer into maximum flavor extraction, so I started on the knife work. I violently attacked at four celery heads and looked at the small pile of onions with dread, knowing the tragic effects that even one of them would have on me. “Tough shit. You wanted to make soup”, I thought. So I speedily peeled the onions, not breathing and with my face away from the cutting board. A few onions later and my eyes started to sting. Still I persevered and it was time to start chopping. The knife Rachel had provided was pretty sharp, but still, cutting onions sucks and that’s the end of it. The world’s fastest (and sloppiest) julienne later and the onions were cut but my eyes were streaming with tears. Rachel was positively alarmed, it was actually quite sweet.

An entire bulb of garlic later and the knife work was done. The best part was now upon me: the co-op members were all obsessed with food, and the kitchen was adorned with an entire wall of spices that put my own collection to shame. It was time to decide which flavor profile would adorn the otherwise simple dish. Some brave soul had taken it upon herself to dehydrate a jar of citrus skins that would beautifully accompany the soup, so the container was gently tossed into my tub alongside some coriander seeds, Himalayan pink salt, a somewhat grimy pepper grinder, and a few bay leaves. This flavor combination would highlight the celery without overwhelming its delicate flavors.

Grabbing the biggest pot I could find, I took a deep breath and started gently warming a mixture of olive and avocado oils. The large bowl of evil onions went in and I sweated them down until just translucent. It was important not to get color on them, otherwise they would be too sweet and weigh down on the bright aromas that were the final goal of this operation. Half the celery, the garlic, and the aromatics went in the pot and the slow, intentional cook continued on. I then added the rest of the celery (to ensure a nice bright green) and a few quarts of water, then turned the heat down. The soup would gently cook down into a witch’s brew that I would then blend into a lush puree.

The chicken was now calling. Now I’d made wings in that style a million times, but that was for six people tops. Nerves were kicking in: this oven was professional grade, something I’d not used in years, and the rack and trays were quite heavy. To add to insult, this way of preparing chicken was quite messy and it seemed unfair for the co-op residents to have to scrub chicken fat off of the oven. Regardless, it was too late to turn back now, so I opened the bag of chicken wings, and found that to my dismay, they had been split between the drummette and the flat bit. In Israel, the wings usually come whole, so this was an unwelcome surprise as there would be less fat on them to turn golden brown. Still, once again, tough shit. This is what I had to work with. So I lined the largest tray I could find with a thick layer of foil and proceeded to place my mini wings directly on the oven rack. That lovely Himalayan pink salt was then sprinkled over the wings and the whole concoction went into a blasting hot oven to be turned over every ten minutes. This was something that was far more inconvenient to do with a battalion’s worth of chicken but that filled the kitchen with the tantalizing smell of crisping chicken skin. The vegans stuck their heads out the windows and quite a few noses started to wrinkle, but the general response was quite positive.

By the time the wings were nearly ready, the soup was ready to be finished. I spent a good five minutes looking for the bay leaves camouflaged inside the pot of witch’s brew and blasted it with the surprisingly powerful immersion blender. A quick taste later and I nearly gagged. Revolting. Not to toot my own horn, but this so rarely happened that I barely knew how to feel the feelings instead of instantly panicking and reaching for the jar of bouillon. A couple yoga breaths later and I tried it again, attempting to remain as objective as possible. “Ok. It’s bland and one note and has a lousy texture. How to sort this out? Lemon juice, fat, salt. All the good things.” Blushing furiously, I picked a couple Meyer lemons from the overloaded tree and found the olive oil squeeze bottle conveniently perched on top of the stove. Doctor Steph to the rescue. Several double dips later and the soup was satisfactory.

Still, the nerves generated from the soup meant that my precious little wings were getting neglected, and a funny smell was starting to come from the outdoor kitchen. Running along the mini trail and nearly getting empaled by a nearby tree, I went to rescue the chicken. Opening the oven fogged up my glasses horribly “Damn this lousy eyesight!” and it took a second before the situation could be assessed. The wings were perfectly golden and crisp and sexy and just the right amount of charred. The panic subsided and I gingerly pulled the bulky oven rack onto the counter to get the wings into a bowl, only to find yet another crisis: the wings were stuck! Luckily there was no shortage of utensils in that fantastic kitchen, so I spent what felt like an eternity wrestling the wings off with a pair of restaurant grade tongs. Dinner was served.

The housemates were pleased to see different food on the table, and people were feeding themselves while enthusiastically asking about the dishes that I’d prepared. Maintaining a cool and suave attitude, I pretended that the meal had taken no effort at all, that of course there were no crises that came about with the cooking process. Rachel, who had been witness to the tears and fat burns that the last two hours had brought, was laughing graciously but the sly look in her eye said it all.

Cooking in that environment was a beautiful learning experience. Sure, the dishes I’d chosen were basic, but being able to execute them in this special kitchen filled with the bounty of southern California was something special. Adding to the fact that there were fresh flowers in vintage vases on every surface and a view to Mexico from the stove made the cooking process that much more unique.

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