Sunday, December 14, 2008

I, too, can cook

My husband Caleb is away for the weekend. This is unusual as most often we travel together. He’s gone to his brother’s to help build a tree house for our nephew. This is no simple tree-house. There are decks and floors and soon-to-be railings. At the center is an ancient elm. This is the kind of tree-house that requires the delicacy of a Japanese saw.

I have decided to stay home because we have been working and traveling, and during our vacation have not had a weekend at home. I am craving these two days, a Saturday and Sunday, these same two days that the majority of the world has off from work, these two days that are always the middle of my work week, busy days at a restaurant.

I have invited friends to visit and stay overnight. Earlier in the week, I begin to think about my menu, and I come across an old cookbook of ours, a classic Tuscan guide. As I thumb through the pages I come across a fish dish, tonno ubriaco, a classic tuna in onion and red wine sauce. Yes, red wine. I have never been a believer that fish must only be accompanied by white wine. There is a long Mediterranean tradition of fish served and cooked with red wine.

We have a beautiful side of salmon, so I will make salmone ubriaco, drunken salmon. We have turnips and potatoes from the garden. I will make a warm turnip-potato salad served with radicchio and curly endive from the green house. I spy a bag of red lentils in the pantry and think this would be an excellent foil to my salmon. Recently, I have found the Madeleine pan that I bought years ago in Montreal, still wrapped in paper from the kitchen shop. I will christen the pan and make Madeleines for dessert. I’ve also just bought a bag of chestnut flour at Buon Italia in NYC, the Italian food extravaganza in the Chelsea Market. I’ll make a fall sweet that will remind me of when we lived in Italy: castagnaccio, a thin chestnut cake studded with raisins, pinenuts, and rosemary.

I joke with Caleb that our houseguests will be nervous without him here and with me cooking. I often cook with Caleb when we have guests, but it is always assumed that the meal has been prepared by my husband. He has always been known as the cook between us.

I am an organized home cook, my time in our own restaurant kitchen teaching me to check my ingredients and to think ahead about what I can cook before guests arrive. As I cook, I wash dishes and utensils as I go along. I like to have a neat kitchen. If you have a messy kitchen and kitchen counter, you will have a messy dish. It sounds clichéd, but this is right. I have learned this lesson well.

I have guessed correctly that our friends are a little nervous about dinner. When I call them Saturday morning to find out what time they will arrive, Mark says, “Gina and I were just saying that we don’t think we’ve ever seen you with a skillet in your hand.” We joke about the meal they should anticipate tonight, about perhaps eating a sandwich before arriving so they don’t starve. I assure them that there will at least be good cheese and bread served, so there will be something to eat. We finish our conversation with Mark, who is a very good cook, saying, “Anything I can do to help?”

After provisioning for last minute ingredients in the morning, I head out into the gardens and green house to pick greens and bunches of parsley, some rosemary. I dig up a turnip and some little white onions. The wind has whipped up, after a full day of heavy rain. The temperature has dropped significantly and the air is spitting. My hands are so cold, my fingers can barely move.

I have already made the Madeleines, so I put together the castagnaccio. While this is baking, I make the beginnings of my sauce, sautéing garlic and the onions with a lot of parsley, a healthy dose of salt and pepper, all in home-pressed olive oil brought back by friends who are fortunate enough to have a house in Umbria. When the garlic starts to brown a little, I remove it, and let the rest cook down a bit. I cut up the turnip and potato into chunks and submerge in cold water so they don’t blacken while waiting for me to cook them. These will be boiled until tender in well-salted water. After straining, I’ll soak them in white vermouth, then toss them with a vinaigrette made with white wine vinegar, grainy French mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper, served still warm. I’ll add the greens and some parsley. This is one of my favorite recipes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The lentils I have already made--the day before with onion and garlic, salt and pepper, and lots of water and a little white wine until they are thoroughly tender. What we don’t finish on Saturday night will make a hearty soup.

The salmon sits on the counter coming to room temperature so that it will cook in the right amount of time to the right doneness. I like my salmon still fairly rare. I prepare the hors d’oeuvres: some store bought hummus with added olive oil and salt and pepper to bring out the flavor, mixed nuts, olives with rosemary, bay, and a little lemon zest. Our friends arrive a shade early and still have to make the vinaigrette. Mark and Gina come in, settle into the guest room. Mark wonders around our very tiny kitchen, looking at the stove, surveying the scene. Again, he asks, “Is there anything I can do?”

I put him in charge of drinks. I have a bottle of white port which I hear one drinks over ice and with lemon in the city of Porto. So we start with this. We sit down and relax and talk away a good hour and half like good friends do.

When it comes time for dinner, Mark is still a little nervous when I go into the kitchen, but everything begins to simmer and happen and he jokes, and says, “Look at you! It’s like you work in a restaurant.” Within minutes three plates are ready with our first course, and the next course is set to go.

Dinner is a lovely, long affair, at our long wooden table with candles and glasses of rubied wine and comfortable conversation. We enjoy our food, but focus more on our companionship. Just the way dinner should be.



WhiteRiverChronicler said...

I love it--you'd think Mark would have a little more faith!

Deirdre and Caleb said...

Faith??? We are talking about Mark!!!.....

Alex said...

Mark, nervous about dinner? Only because he'd have to stop talking.