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Food critic Tonya Kuxhausen writes reviews of meals she prepares for herself at home. Food is at the center of each article but the whole dining experience is considered and commented on. To paraphrase Socrates, an unexamined meal is not worth eating.

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four hearts

The couscous dumpling gang

Friends were joining me for dinner, and that was the incentive I needed. I wanted to make something delicious. I've made this tomato soup many times before, and the dumplings are a bit of a wild card - they're different every time. I only hoped they wouldn't let me down tonight. I psyched myself up to make some really good ones. I'd have to follow directions carefully.

I worked on the soup while my friends sat at the table with the appetizer, pistachios, leafing through People Magazine and US Weekly. I ate some pistachios but never sat down. They were great - salty and dry with that lively pistachio flavor and soft crunch. I was drinking a Diet Coke, and I snuck chocolate chips with the nuts (a treat unbeknown to my friends). I can't resist following salty nuts with chocolate chips, especially with the zing of a Diet Coke chaser. The pistachios/chocolate/Diet Coke/Excedrin combination was finally easing my headache, and I felt like a new woman. I felt alive with excitement for the dumplings and my friends.

The dumplings are very, very tedious, and in the process of making them, you dirty almost every dish in the house. Here is a list of what I used for the dumplings (no lie!):

tea kettle
3 measuring spoons
4 measuring cups
egg separator (actually bought one when I was making angel food cake from scratch last fall)
egg beater
small bowl for couscous
small plate for trapping steam
large bowl for blending dry ingredients
slightly smaller bowl for creaming egg yolks and butter
a knife
a fork
a large spoon
a rubber scraper
glass measuring cup for beating egg whites
a bowl for folding everything together

The dishes were piling up deep.

The Menu (03-16-02)

Organic Mixed Greens Salad with Raspberries and Balsamic Vinaigrette
French Bread with Butter
Spicy Tomato Soup with Couscous Dumplings
Chocolate Mousse Torte from Lunds

The really interesting part comes next. The recipe says to drop the couscous mixture by rounded tablespoons into the simmering soup, which to me implies round dumplings. Mine are always lumpy, asymmetrical masses that cook up into large blobs. Anyway, after letting them cook for 20 minutes, I was alarmed by how much they expanded in the soup. I was briefly worried and told my friends if it didn't turn out, we could just go to McDonald's and I would buy everyone Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. But they were delicious. I think they expanded more this time because I had sifted the dry ingredients and folded everything so lightly. My friends raved about them and erased my self-doubt. The dumplings were thoroughly cooked and warm, buttery with a little dill, a light, chewy texture that gave away with delicate toothly pressure. The spiciness of the soup was perfect with the mild butteriness of the dumplings. But I think my favorite part was the garnish - parsley and grated cheddar cheese. The cheddar was a New York aged white cheddar, perfect for melting and snacking, and its flavor blended wonderfully with the soup. Sharp and salty, cheesy, melty. Mmmm.

We also had a salad and bread. My friends drank Coke and Diet Mountain Dew, I had water. The salad was good, just a basic, mixed-greens bulk salad from the Wedge. We added raspberries and a heavy dose of Newman's Own vinaigrette (thanks to my friend). We tossed the salad and served it up with cheap, metal grill tongs. For five dollars, my one friend (who is unemployed), drank the small pool of salad dressing left in the bowl. He drank it from a shot glass. During dinner, we talked about the theremin and discussed Russell Crowe's flannel shirt and his band. We all loved the bread. It was a French loaf with basil from the bakery down the street; we warmed it in the oven and had large helpings of the room-temperature butter. Delicious. Mindful of the intimidating pile of dishes, my friends cheerfully reused their salad bowls for soup, one friend even rinsed mine and hers out. "My compliments to the chef," she said.

We were stuffed, but went right for dessert. That's what I love about eating at home. We had an amazing chocolate mousse torte from Lunds. It was the kind of heavenly dessert that tastes calorie-less. My friends ate the plastic-looking white "chocolate" shamrock decorations from the top of the torte and said they were good. I didn't want them to ruin the real chocolate for me, so I gave them to my friend who drank the dressing. With dessert, I had a glass of Black Opal shiraz and my one friend had some weird kind of ruby port, which she says is good. My other friend had a shot of Stoli and said, "I should have had this first."