Several years back I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with the legendary Sylvia Woods on a cookbook. It was her second book, but the intention this time was to tell her incredible rags-to-riches story. That story would be incomplete if it wasn't all about family and friends, which is why we called it Sylvia's Family Soul Food Cookbook. The interesting thing about the project is that I got to know so many members of the Woods family as a result. I remember the cover photo shoot like it was yesterday -- dozens of aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, and nephews all dressed up for portraits. I also vividly remember the book launch party at Sylvia's. I made a speech, which I almost never do. I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I said that the book was about love and bringing family and friends together. I was inspired by the Woods family then, and I still am. I've dined at Sylvia's in Harlem more times than I can count now, often for special occasions like birthdays. And I've worn out that cookbook, making the recipes so many times. I can think of no more fitting tribute than to cook up a few of Sylvia's recipes.Amazingly, I'd never tried making her bbq pork before. The truth is, I don't have much experience roasting pork shoulder, but as you can see from the first photo, it turned out quite beautifully, not that I should have expected anything less. After the roasting, you chop up the pork, discarding the bone (and try to resist snacking the whole time).I won't spoil the recipe for the bbq sauce which you make from scratch (hint, it has applesauce in it -- trust me, buy this book!) while the pork is roasting. You toss the pork, bbq sauce, and some chopped onions together.Then you roast everything for another 30 minutes, and you get this. Your kitchen will smell heavenly.Sylvia's black-eyed pea salad has been a favorite in my household for years now. It's sweet, just like you might expect from a Southern-style dish, and the longer you let it marinate before eating, the better it gets.Then there's the tomato-okra stew. At least to me, this is what Southern cooking is all about. Every time I make a dish with okra, I wonder why I don't do it more often. The key to this recipe is the bacon, a half pound of it, chopped and cooked until crisp. Then you cook 1/2 cup of chopped onions in the bacon fat and stir in a tablespoon of flour (I used cornstarch) to thicken things up. Next you add a 15-ounce can of stewed tomatoes, 10 ounces of frozen, cut okra, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. I used fresh okra, the same measure -- 10 ounces -- and loved the results. The recipe says to simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, but if you're using fresh okra like I did, you might want to cook it a bit longer until the texture seems right.So what did I do with all that great food? Zokos and Cookstr were holding a benefit potluck for City Harvest, so I brought all three dishes along with me. Besides the event being for a great cause (I think they raised about $1,000), lots of friends came out: Jackie, Margaret, Melody, Sara, Hazel, Emily, Yvo, Melissa, and more. There were quite a few raves for the stewed tomatoes and okra. My only regret is that I didn't make a bigger batch!
I have a few friends working for cool-sounding start-up companies, but when they get down to explaining the concept behind the business, I bet sometimes I'm making a very perplexed expression on my face. In fact I probably did that when I first heard about Zokos, but now I think I'm getting it. Maybe you've got some skills in the kitchen and like to throw parties with good food, but you're living on more of a spaghetti budget these days. You could ask your friends to chip in for the ingredients to throw a party, but that gets a little awkward. Maybe they forget to contribute, or they invite a surprise guest who doesn't pay their share. No one bothers to bring along a dessert or even bottle of cheap wine. After hours in the kitchen and $200 blown at Whole Foods, your friends may be impressed, but you're thinking, "I just can't afford to throw dinner parties anymore." Zokos takes care of the awkwardness. Friends buy "tickets" to the event, paying up front. There's a minimum number of people required for an event to happen at all. Everyone chips in, so it's totally fair. And if for some reason nobody signs up for your "Frog's Legs 13 Ways-themed Tasting," you can simply call it off. Well, that's my understanding of Zokos so far, and I've been to a couple of their events recently (I paid my own way both times, for the record). The party I attended over the holiday weekend was great for a few reasons. Reason #1 -- the view (above). If I had that view from my roof deck (ha, I don't have a deck at all), I'd want to throw parties all the time too.Reason #2 -- the people. That's one of the hosts in the middle, my friend Veronica. She co-hosted the dinner party with Joann and Andrew (not pictured, and full disclosure, Andrew works for Zokos). I met a lot of cool, new people there too, like Quinton and Greg in the photo above, and too many more to list them all here. And Veronica is holding a tray of Reason #3 -- tacos!Reasons #4 and #5 -- Veronica's nori-flavored popcorn and food on sticks. Isn't anything served on a stick just a little bit yummier?Reason #6 -- kimbap, more kimbap than I've ever seen in one place before. By the way, if you don't know, kimbap is a sort of Korean sushi, as you probably guessed from the photo.Reason #7 -- gazpacho with shrimp, and a big tray of extra shrimp for people like me who can't get quite enough.Reason #8 -- well, there were some other reasons I skipped (and one I missed because they apparently served a tray of this dessert after I'd departed), but I saved the best for last... oysters. And see, that's the cool thing about the event. If I was throwing a party at home on my own tab, I probably wouldn't spring for oysters. Call me cheap, but I think that's a serious splurge. But when everyone chips in for the meal in advance, it might just fit the budget. That's pretty cool, if you ask me.