Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Sweet Potatoes

I'm prone to experiment, not the scientific method type of experiment, just trying things out that are not standard, to see how they go.  Last week a couple turned out pretty well, for a change.  Several different friends from out of town were coming for the eTextbook UnConference.  Each wanted to see me socially while they were here.  So I invited them out to the house as a group.  I said I'd grill out and have plenty to drink.  We could all relax that way.  That became the plan.

I chose that instead of going to a restaurant for a couple of reasons.  One is simply that going to a restaurant is what we do when each of us is out of town, on neutral turf.  In this case, however, we were on my turf, so I felt obliged to signify that in some way.   The other was that one of the group, Steve Acker, was coming with his wife, Suzanne, and their dog, Jasmine.  They were en route to their house in Colorado, using the conference as the first resting point during the trip.  If we went out to dinner, either Suzanne and Jasmine wouldn't come, not a particularly friendly outcome, or Suzanne would come but Jasmine wouldn't, in which case Suzanne would be the only non learning technologist in the group and Jasmine would be alone in a hotel room.  Neither of those were happy prospects.  By having them all to the house my wife and kids would also participate - making it much simpler and more comfortable for Suzanne and Steve.

We have a dog too, Ginger, a golden doodle, now eight years old.  Ginger is pretty set in her ways.  She's calmed down a lot since she was a puppy, but when people come to the house she temporarily forgets her age and starts acting like a puppy again.  She barks up a storm and might jump onto someone - not with the intention of hurting them, only to test the waters.  Eventually the person starts to look familiar and Ginger calms down.  That's been here routine for quite a while.  But we haven't had another dog in the house for several years.  So we didn't know how Ginger would react to Jasmine.  Plan B was to put her in the basement and let one of the kids be down there with her.  (When we have a thunderstorm, that's her hiding place.)  We didn't need Plan B.  Jasmine and Ginger got along okay.  They even played a bit together outside.  And Jasmine did one of Ginger's favorite tricks when it's hot out; climb into the pond to cool off. 

The other experiment started with the decision to grill the night before and serve the food cold the next day.  That way I wouldn't be all grotey when the guests arrived.  With things prepared in advanced I'd feel a bit more in control.  I grilled several different meats - pork tenderloin, brats, and turkey breast. (I thought the turkey breast would be for dinner the night of the grilling, but the rest of the family had some of the pork tenderloin, which was fine because there was quite a lot of that.   I didn't serve the turkey to the guests.  It wasn't fresh and it proved to be very salty.)  I also did salmon.  Who knew what the guests would like and whatever they didn't have we'd eat over the next several days.  I did a few russet potatoes and some sweet potatoes in foil and let them cook slowly on the grill - for more than an hour.  And near the end of the grilling I did some asparagus and red and yellow bell peppers. 

Day of my wife had committed to making a regular salad.  To round things out I made a pasta salad with peas that I planned to serve cold.  There's a restaurant in town called The Great Impasta and they have a pasta salad with spinach pesto that I've always liked (I'm less fond of pesto made with basil), so I was trying to do something in that vein.  I used both (whole wheat) rotini and bowtie pasta for contrast in color and shape.  I had a big bag of frozen peas.  After cooking the pasta for about six minutes I added the peas in and cooked another six minutes.  It all came out pretty well.   But I couldn't find spinach pesto in the store, so I bought tomato pesto instead.  Sometimes necessity forces improvisation. 

It occurred to me that was going to be a lot of food for dinner so I decided to serve the grilled vegetables and sweet potatoes as appetizers and a few of the brats as appetizers as well.  I made a large platter with the vegetables.  The bell peppers and asparagus I put out as is.  For the sweet potatoes, I sliced them with slices thicker than when you slice an egg but not so thick as a slice of bread.  I left the skin on.  Color-wise, I thought it was quite an attractive platter.  I made a separate plate with the brats cut up with a toothpick in each piece.  That's a great appetizer with beer, though probably not great for you. 

My wife was mildly horrified when she saw the platter.  It's true that the asparagus was incredibly thin - the guests originally thought it was string beans.  And the tips were bruised when I bought them.  But I figured they'd eat the same no matter what.  I knew these folks pretty well, except Suzanne, who proved to be a sweetheart, and I know what it's like at the end of a day after being in a conference the whole time.  The real purpose of the food is so the alcohol doesn't feel lonely.  This time around I was on the mark.  The platter was a big hit and since it really was finger food, eating it helped everyone relax. 

It was a delightful evening.  I like it when my experiments work out.  And after my wife complimented me for doing such a good job as host.  That's incredibly rare.

* * * * *

I don't know if it's hanging around with learning technologists that encourages this, but having a good experience like this I want to know if I can replicate it.  That's the obvious next step so I think I'll do something in this vein for the locals in the not too distant future.  I don't know precisely when.  It would be good for the heat to break first.  But then from my point of view it could really be anytime.

If replication also gets a thumbs up, the next question is whether it can scale.  The night of that party as I was trying to go to sleep I thought about a chain restaurant called The Sweet Potato that served an eclectic menu of the sort described above but featured grilled vegetables served cold.  I told this to a colleague today and she was wildly enthusiastic about it.  She said there would be great demand for something like this in town - a healthy alternative to the fast food places.  Whether that can be delivered at a reasonable price, I have no idea.  When I shopped at Schucks for the vegetables I used in that dinner, they were not cheap.  (I think the bell peppers were 2 for $3.)  So this could be a pipedream.  I've done enough with learning technology in the past to know that even with wonderful small scale experiments, that's no guarantee something good will come when done at scale.  Nevertheless, the idea is intriguing.

A few columns back, Joe Nocera wrote about Burger King, that it was teetering because the Private Equity folks who "run it" have been using it as a cash cow.  If it goes belly up in the near future perhaps a new enterprise called The Sweet Potato can buy up the properties in a fire sale and convert them along the lines in the previous paragraph.  I can imagine the IPO already. 

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