I am the host for my weekly playgroup. Every Monday, I send out an e-mail to find out how many people are interested in playing that week. When the group was smaller, I used to do this to ensure we would have enough people to play multiplayer. If I found out that only two or three of us were going to be there, we'd often just cancel things for that week and plan for the next week. The group is significantly bigger now, so when the e-mail goes out, I'm looking to find out how many people will be invading my house.
I have two reasons for wanting to know how many people will be attending:
- Do I need to bring up a folding table from the basement? If we are bringing eight or more of us together, a second table is in order. I've tried putting a second leaf in the big dining room table, but eight-player games are lousy (that's another article), and two games at the same table leads to a lot of overlap between games.
2. How Much Food Do I Need?
For anyone who hosts a Magic get-together (or any party or visit for that matter), food is an integral part of making it an enjoyable experience. For younger Magic players, this generally amounts to some floor space along with two liters of Mountain Dew and your favorite flavor of Doritos. There is nothing wrong with that, but mixing it up every once in a while is a good plan.
For my group, we have a pretty standard setup. The guys provide beer. I have a beer fridge in the dining room, and no one in my house drinks beer, so everyone knows the beer will be there next week. Everyone is good about sharing what is there and keeping the supply up when it starts to dwindle. The guys also provide a variety of snacks, especially when it looks like we'll have more than six or seven of us in a night.
I generally supply a couple of Costco pizzas. These things are big, loaded, and with a price tag any value trader would love. When they come out of the oven, the crust isn't all greasy, so your Magic cards are preserved. A long time ago, Kelly Digges wrote an article about food and Magic. He made good points about a variety of standard Magic fare. His key point was that if you are playing with your cards, whatever you eat has to be something that isn't going to leave your fingers all greasy. I love a juicy burger as much as anyone, but a drop of juicy burger on my fingers would translate into sticky cards all over the table. No one wants that.
When I was looking to put this article together, I talked to Jesse, one of the regulars in the group. Jesse and his friend Tom run Castles & Cooks, a website I've mentioned before, dedicated to the combination of food and gaming. They had a discussion about the perfect gaming food. Jesse summarized their three requirements that I believe are spot on:
- Variable serving size – Not everyone eats the same amount, so it is ideal to have food that can easily be served in multiple sizes with ease.
- Minimal mess – Often with one person hosting, that person ends up with most of the cleaning. You're going to want a food that minimizes this by using as few utensils as possible. Or you can use plastic/paper, but I'm more pro-environment than that.
- Staggered serving time – Not everyone will be eating at the same point, especially in a game of Magic. People will grab food when it isn't their turn (and usually when they don't have any instants in hand). The food should be able to sit for ten minutes with ease.
After looking at this and deciding I wanted to vary from the usual pizza, I decided to go with chili. Then I realized that we were making corn chowder this weekend, so that seemed like a good idea, too! Corn chowder it is! Oh, you prefer chili to chowder? How about both?
And as long as we are going to be different, we'll kick it up a notch and do 'em in a bread bowl! While it sounds environmentally friendly to eat the bowl, I can't guarantee the bread bowl won't leak, so ensure plates are involved. When it comes to bread bowls, you use a bread bowl because hey, who doesn't love a bread bowl!?
If you have several hours to prepare before everyone gets together for Magic, you are among the lucky few who can make this tantalizing dish from start to finish. Most of us work and simply don't have that kind of time beforehand, so this will need to be done in stages.
Stage 1 – The Bread Bowls
Making the bread bowls is very time consuming, but it's not all that difficult. You can go one of two routes. The first way to go is to head to your local Panera or bakery and buy the bread bowls you need. They will probably be crusty, look beautiful, and be delicious. The second route is to make them yourself. You can do this. I'll walk you through it.
Mix the ingredients together and knead for eight minutes (or have a KitchenAid mixer do that for you!). Form the dough into a large ball, cover and let sit in a dry, warm place for about an hour or until it doubles in size. Punch it down and form into 4 evenly sized balls (about half a pound). For those of you with bread machine, set it to make just the dough for a loaf of bread. When it is finished, take out your dough, punch it down, and form it into 4 evenly sized balls. Just like the ones below:
At this point, I put them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper, seal it with plastic wrap, and put it in the freezer. Remove your balls from the freezer (heh) about 8 to 10 hours before the event and leave them sitting out to thaw and rise. The balls will more than double in size, so if you are making more than four, put half of them on another sheet and space them all out to allow your balls to grow without touching each other.
Once they've risen, put your balls in a 375-degree oven for 25 minutes. Give them some time to cool—cutting into them straight out of the oven will just be a nightmare for you. Cut into it straight down, then hollow the bowl out with a spoon, leaving some bread along the sides and bottom to soak up the deliciousness of your chowder/chili.
Do keep in mind this recipe only makes 4 bowls. If you are likely to have more than four, you'll need to up your ingredients and you'll need more oven time. You may need to double (or triple!) your oven time to allow for more batches.
Stage 2 – Corn Chowder
Generally, corn chowder is a better option than clam chowder since more people have issues with clams than corn. If your group prefers clam chowder, you'll have to look elsewhere for a recipe. I can't stand clams, so I'm not even giving my group the option!
Start by sautéing the bacon. This is going to be a garnish, so make it crisp. And yes, bacon is a better garnish than any froufrou green sprigs you could put on it!
Once the bacon is finished, remove the bacon from the pan and sauté the onions, celery, thyme, and corn cobs until everything is somewhat soft. No, not until the corn cobs are soft—everything else! The corn cobs are in there for flavor; they will come out later.
Once everything is soft, add the potatoes and water. Cook until the potatoes are soft. This should take about 15 minutes. Stir regularly during this time.
Add the evaporated milk, regular milk, and corn kernels, and wait for it to come to a boil. Stir regularly here as well. You don't want it burning on the bottom of your pan.
Once it has come to a boil, start adding the thickener. Remember that this is going to be thicker once it stops boiling, so be careful not to go overboard or you'll end up with paste!
Remove the cobs, and salt and pepper to taste. Leave it to simmer at least 10 minutes, then add the bacon as you serve it! Voila!
The joy of chowder is that it is often better when it is refrigerated and heated up the next day, so don't hesitate to make this on a weekend and leave it in your fridge until your game night.
Stage 2a – Chili
I make the best chili. Yeah, and the best Magic deck ever is this deck I played eight years ago at a multiplayer game . . .
Saying you have the best chili is ridiculous. There are so many varieties of chili and so many different tastes—there is no such thing. Chili, however, has a serious following. My friend Jesse pointed me to this:
The Chili Appreciation Society International specified in 1999 that, among other things, cooks are forbidden to include beans, marinate any meats, or discharge firearms in the preparation of chili for official competition.
Brown the ground beef on high in a large skillet. Chop the onion, and add to the beef after it has browned. Add the soup and the rest of the ingredients to the chili. Reduce the heat and let it simmer for at least an hour.
My chili has been dulled through years of making it for children who have no appreciation for a little “WOW” in their food. On the standard “alarm” system for chili, this chili would barely rate a 1. I recommend adding significant chili powder and anything else you prefer to up the hot in your chili. Do remember that you are making it for others, and tasting your chili on the stove while it is still piping hot from the burner will mute the heat of the chili. Expect the zing to be more powerful when serving.
I hope I've encouraged you to spice up your play group the next time you are hosting. A shift from the same old same old can really liven things up.
P.S. A special thanks to my loving wife for the corn chowder idea. The recipe is all hers.