Saturday, August 10, 2013

August Harvest and Family

(Originally posted 8/28/10)

The final days of summer often make us think of our childhood.  We recall trying to cram as much fun as possible into the last hours of freedom before the inevitable return to school once again imposes structure and moderation.  It seems a fitting coincidence, then, that this is also the time that vegetable harvest is in full swing.  There’s a kind of euphoric desperation as we try to find ways to use up never-ending baskets of tomatoes, buy more ears of corn than we can possibly eat, and pick pail after pail of berries.  The overabundance of produce is like that wild end-of-summer frenzy, as good fortune cries out to be used to its fullest before it’s gone.

 Last week, I traveled to my childhood hometown of Paxton, Massachusetts to celebrate my mother’s 85th birthday.  My sister Anne and her family now live in the house my father built, and my mother, widowed for 20 years, lives in a small and neat two-bedroom ranch about a mile away.  My kids and I love and look forward to these visits.  Not surprisingly, there is always a heavy emphasis on eating and cooking together, and the explosion of the Northeast harvest ensured that this time was no exception.

  My mother, a no-nonsense New Englander, refused to let us make a big fuss over her birthday.  Salmon, her long-time favorite, was the requested entrée, accompanied by a colorful sauté of local veggies.  She allowed only one guest:  Aunt Pauline.  Excellent choice, as Pauline (the widow of my father’s brother) is one of the finest cooks and bakers I’ve ever met.  Her meat pie, a Christmas-eve staple, is legendary.  Her seafood chowder could bring tears to your eyes.  And she never, ever accepts a dinner invitation without insisting on bringing the dessert.  For this occasion, Pauline produced an angel food cake with a filling of mixed berries in a berry gelatin.  It was light, fresh, and tasted just like summer.  And, just so we wouldn’t starve to death before breakfast, she baked a dozen gigantic blueberry muffins, crusted with sugar and heavy with fruit she’d picked herself.  As if that weren’t enough, she bestowed on us, as she always does, gifts of freshly canned treats:  strawberry, raspberry and apricot preserves, as well as mint jelly (made from her own mint leaves, of course) and her fabulous zucchini relish, with bits of sweet red pepper.  My sister and I have each admitted a secret desire to be reborn in the next life as a man, in order to seek out and marry Aunt Pauline.

     No summertime visit to Paxton would be complete without a trip (or several) to Cournoyer’s, the local farm stand.  The Cournoyer family has farmed their land for several generations, and the business is now run by Larry and his wife Louise.  How well I remember, though, the older Mrs. Cournoyer, who was the ever-present fixture at the farm when I was a kid.  She stood about four feet ten inches tall, was rather broad in the beam, and sported a bow-legged gait that bespoke a lifetime of hard work done with pride.  In her house dress and apron, support hose and sensible shoes, gray-streaked hair tied back in a bun, she’d greet customers with that distinctive central-Massachusetts-by-way-of-French-Canadian accent.  She had a preternatural ability to take one glance at the purchases a customer laid on the counter and instantaneously figure a sum in her head.  I once asked my mother what the lady’s first name was, and Mom replied, without a hint of irony or sarcasm, “Missus.”  (Years later, I learned it was actually Antoinette.)
 These days, people come from many miles away to shop at Cournoyer’s, and for good reason.  The produce is just insanely delicious.  From peppers to new potatoes, squash to beans, fresh herbs to a cacophony of colorful fruit, everything seems somehow infused with an extra jolt of its own flavor, so that you really believe that you’ve never tasted a more tomatoey tomato in your life.  It is all displayed in a small clapboard building with a cement floor and sturdy wooden tables, situated between the family’s farmhouse and the vast fields of crops.  When I was a kid, most summer meals included a side dish of sliced Cournoyer’s cucumbers and tomatoes, adorned only with a bit of salt. 
Occasionally, my mother would sprinkle sugar on the tomatoes, “to bring out their natural sweetness” and satisfy her own mad sweet tooth.  (This is, after all, the woman who taught me that the best use for leftover rice was as breakfast the next morning, doused with a healthy pour of pure maple syrup.) 

The Cournoyer Farm Stand - Paxton, Massachusetts

      The crowning glory of the Cournoyer farm is the corn.  People look forward to its first harvesting with a blend of excitement and reverence generally reserved for religious occasions.  Most in demand is the “butter and sugar” variety (bi-colored), which is without question just plain spectacular.  My sister swears that she could be blindfolded and pick Cournoyer’s corn out of a line-up without error.  “It’s the Paxton soil,” she emphasizes as butter drips daintily off her chin.  My mother, whose corn consumption has not decreased despite the need to cut if off the cob, raises her wiry white eyebrows and mutters conspiratorially, “They’ve got their own seed.  Mrs. Cournoyer developed it 50 years ago.  It’s a secret, and they’ve never shared it with anyone else.  That’s why their corn is different.”  And it’s true that I remember hearing this story as a child.  But maybe that’s just the corn talking. 

     After several days of cooking and eating with my family in Massachusetts, I found myself again (as always) musing over what it is about food that makes us feel so good.  Sometimes it’s adventure and excitement, as when we try a new exotic restaurant or recipe.  Sometimes it’s the delight of discovering a combination of flavors that come together to create something entirely new and unexpected.  In this case, however, I am grateful for the feeling of connectedness that is conveyed more potently through food than any other medium:  connection to a particular place or time; connection to family and a set of traditions; connection to people you know as well as you know the taste of the most ordinary food, but who can still surprise you.  There is a
Cut zinnea flowers at Cournoyer's
unique and powerful pleasure in tasting something utterly commonplace, something you’ve known intimately since childhood, only to find that you’ve forgotten just how good it really is.  The simple joy of a late-summer family reunion, like the abundant harvest, reminds us that we are often most nourished and nurtured by that which is closest to our hearts.

Top 10 Food Moments - Paris 2010

View from our apartment on rue Saint-Dominique
(originally posted 8/1/10)

It's been several weeks since we returned from our 25th anniversary trip to Paris, and it has taken a while to digest (pardon the pun) all that we saw and experienced and ate.  As suspected, spending a week in Paris with two kids yielded an array of gastronomic experiences beyond mere fine dining.  So, with apologies to David Letterman, here is my list of the top ten food moments from our trip.

10.  Galettes at La Bohème du Tertre.  Climbing all those steps to get to the top of the Basilica du Sacré Cœur can be exhausting.  Fortunately, just below the church is the Place du Tertre, a tourist-crowded village square once teeming with artists, now teeming with restaurants where you can rest your exhausted feet and take in some nourishment.  Because it was a beautiful afternoon, we decided to sit outside beneath the red awning at La Bohème, situated across from the Eglise Saint-Pierre de Montmartre.  The nourishment:  glasses of wine for the adults, plus traditional galettes with gruyère and ham.  The galettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour) were soft in the middle, crispy around the edges, and had an earthy, nutty flavor that perfectly played off the gruyère.  Of course, the sunny, bustling atmosphere could only enhance the experience.

9.  Berthillon.  Ever since Declan realized that he would turn nine during our trip, we talked about a birthday treat at Berthillon, the famous ice cream parlor on Ile Saint-Louis.  While there is a little tea room with table service, most people just join the line snaking along the sidewalk of rue Saint Louis-en-l’Isle and order from the window.  Then you can take your cone and wander around the island, or cross over the bridge connecting Ile Saint-Louis with Ile de la Cité and admire the flying buttresses of Notre-Dame.  With each of us getting a double scoop, we were able to sample eight flavors.  We especially loved the hazelnut and the caramel.  However, even though this is undoubtedly the quintessential Parisian ice cream experience, we all agreed that the ice cream itself was not quite as all-out, drop-dead fabulous at the gelato at…

8.  Amorino.  This chain of Italian gelato shops is now all over Paris, and is clearly mounting a frontal attack on the half-century dominion of Berthillon.  While it may seem sacrilegious, I must say that the creamier texture and not-quite-so-sweet flavors of Amorino take the prize.  As in traditional Italian gelaterias, the flavors are displayed in rectangular troughs that are tempting and beautiful.  If you order more than one flavor (which you MUST do), the first is mounded in a ball atop the cone, while the second one is applied with a flat paddle around the central ball, producing the effect of flower in bloom.  While the gelato is rather expensive, the portions are gigantic. 

7.  Paris Markets.  Question:  What’s the single best place to eat in Paris?  Answer:  At one of the fabulous outdoor markets, grazing as you stroll.  Question:  If I am passing through Paris and have time to see only one thing in the whole city, what should it be?  Answer:  A Parisian market, preferable the one on Avenue du President Wilson.  I discussed the markets in detail in my last entry, so I’ll leave it at that.

6.  Bofinger.  Making a reservation at this restaurant was sort of my concession to showing the kids a traditional Parisian restaurant experience, as well as to ensure that we made it to the Bastille area at least once.  Bofinger claims to be the oldest Alsatian brasserie in Paris (although it is now owned by the empire-building Flo Restaurant Group) and its décor certainly lives up to that image.  On the pavement just outside the entry stands a stall displaying several varieties of oysters.  Inside, one finds brass railings, high ceilings with a stained-glass dome in the center, and serious-looking black-jacketed waiters.  Since we were going for the “experience,” and I know that many other tourists do the same, I had pretty low expectations for the food.  How wonderful to be pleasantly surprised.  Our table was just below that lovely stained-glass dome, and the waiters turned out to be far more friendly than crusty.  Barclay gamely ordered one of the many choucroute (sauerkraut) specialties, choosing one with all manner of pork products, while I had one of the selections from that week’s special menu celebrating lobster.  It was a cold lobster salad with marinated green beans and julienned mango, and it somehow managed to be simultaneously rich, light, refreshing, and comforting.  Even the kids loved their meals (beef and salmon), and got a kick out of seeing waiters conveying several huge platters that looked just like the one Mr. Bean ordered in “Mr. Bean’s Holiday,” with mounds of seafood topped with enormous head-on shrimp.  All in all, Bofinger offered good food and picture-perfect Parisian atmosphere.

5.  Foie Gras at La Fontaine de Mars.  For our singular adults-only dinner on the date of our 25th anniversary, Barclay and I decided on La Fontaine de Mars.  This informal but trendy place is where the Obamas dined during their visit to Paris last summer and it is, as luck would have it, situated about a block from the apartment we rented.  Even more auspicious, the evening of our reservation turned out to be the only really warm one during our stay, so we were able to take a table on the sidewalk and soak in the understated-chic atmosphere of the rue Saint-Dominique.  Our entreés were very good but not truly memorable.  The starter we shared, however, was magnificent:  a duck foie gras, flavored with Sauternes, and served just slightly below room temperature.  The buttery texture, slight sweetness, and mind- (and artery-) blowing richness of the meat were spectacular.  After a few mouthfuls, we both realized we were literally moaning.  No one seemed to notice; moaning is, no doubt, the standard to reaction to this dish.

4.  Nutella Crêpes.  What’s not to love about Nutella?  And these sidewalk crêpe vendors don’t mess around:  not just a schmear, but a serious quarter-cup or so of the chocolate-hazelnut goo is mounded onto a warm crepe, which is then folded into quarters in an inevitably futile attempt to keep the Nutella contained.  (Paxton added banana to his, because it’s healthy if it includes fruit, right?)  Consuming one without wearing most of it is a considerable challenge. Combine the pure pleasure of eating one with an after-dinner stroll around the Latin Quarter, enjoying some of the best people-watching and sidewalk entertainment in the world, and you have a near-perfect low-brow food experience.

3.  Declan eats his first snail at the bar/brasserie Le Champs du Mars.  Again, this momentous event is chronicled in previous entry so I will spare my gentle readers any redundancy.  But it was awesome.

2.  Salon de Thé Angelina.  This place is rightly famous for its decadent hot chocolate and killer pastries.  So, after several hours at the nearby Louvre and Orangerie museums, we all felt that we had earned the right to ingest a few thousand calories at 3:00 in the afternoon.  Who’s to stop us?  We joined the line of tourists waiting in the foyer giving onto the pretty belle-époque room with frescoes, gilded mirrors, and marble-topped tables.  Finally seated, we ordered our chocolate:  “l’Africaine,” the house specialty, a stunningly rich concoction that is basically the texture and flavor of a high-quality European chocolate bar that has been melted.  You could practically stand up a spoon in it.  This is served in white pitchers, for either one or two diners, accompanied by a bowl of unsweetened whipped cream.  We thought we were being delicate in ordering one single and one double for the four of us.  Ha!  We were begging for mercy long before they were drained.  But since we were there, we naturally had to order Angelina’s most acclaimed dessert, the
Mont Blanc, a meringue tart topped with chestnut crème, as well as another fabulous pastry consisting of a lime cheesecake-like base with white chocolate.  The only downside of this whole experience is I fear that none of us will ever be satisfied with “normal” hot chocolate again.

1.  Rotisserie Chicken from Les Viandes du Champs de Mars.  One of the reasons we chose an apartment over a hotel, we reasoned, was to experience life like a Parisian.  Rather than eating out every night, we would cook and sample prepared foods in our neighborhood.  Good thing we had Les Viandes du Champs de Mars at our doorstep.  Yes, there was a G-20 supermarché across the street, many boulangeries, pâtisseries, and even a good wine shop within a block.  But the intoxicating smells emanating from this little charcuterie/rotisserie were just about killing us every time we entered or left the building.  So one evening, we decided to gather together the most appealing foods from our immediate surroundings and feast in our temporary home.  Barclay ran to the Asian market and got spring rolls and some kind of spicy beef concoction, then to find a good bottle of wine.   I went to the Rotisserie and requested a chicken.  None ready for another 30 minutes?  No problem.  I selected my bird, which the proprietor marked with a metal tag bearing a number, and crossed to the G-20 to buy potatoes and green beans. 
The chicken was just emerging from the roaster and being carefully wrapped when I arrived to bring it home.  Oh, what a feast we had.  That roasted chicken was easily the best I have ever eaten.  During our week in Paris, we did order poulet rôti at restaurants, for many times the cost of that sidewalk-roasted bird, but none could begin to compare.  The crispy skin, well-seasoned but not overly-salty; the moist, succulent flesh; the juices gathering in the bottom of the cardboard and paper packaging… my mouth waters just recalling its perfection.

To Market, To Market

(originally posted 7/8/10)
During the past two weeks, I’ve been checking out area farmers markets. Even when I’m not shopping for anything in particular, I just love the displays, the variety, the color, the aromas, the feeling of possibility that comes from being surrounded by produce, baked treats, flowers, and cheeses. However, I must admit that even the most expansive markets I’ve seen in central Pennsylvania are dwarfed by the multitude of neighborhood markets I recently saw in Paris.

We visited several Parisian markets, but I would have to say that the hands-down winner for variety, beauty, mind-boggling size and bustling atmosphere is the Marche du Pont de l’Alma on Avenue du President Wilson in the 16th arrondissement. You could spend hours there, snacking all along the way, and come home with everything you need for a monumental meal, right down to the wine and table linens. Watch for the stalls with the longest lines, including the one that specializes in freshly-made pasta and Italian delicacies. Try to keep your ankles from being bruised by the little old ladies wielding their rolling metal carts like riot shields, as they load up for a family dinner. Eavesdrop on the men chewing the fat (literally) with the sausage maker, and on the stylish women debating the merits of one pastry over another (while you wonder, how could people so impossibly skinny be buying all those rich desserts?).

French open-air markets are a great place to learn about French attitudes toward food. In Paris, domiciles are small, refrigerators often miniscule, and storage is at a minimum. People shop almost daily, and there is an expectation that fresh, attractive, locally-grown foods will be available in one’s own neighborhood. In the midst of one of the world’s busiest cities, you can enter an avenue of stalls and tables displaying what seems like acres of gorgeous produce, artisan cheeses, freshly-butchered meats and hand-made sausages, seafood, flowers, herbs and a stunning array of prepared foods.

The French love to eat, and they are not squeamish about food. Both traditional French soul food and high-gastronomy cuisine often consist of animals (or parts of animals) that all but the most open-minded and open-palated Americans would consider beyond the pale. Frogs’ legs and escargots have become mainstream fare in the U.S.; but the likes of tête de veau (calf’s head), pigs’ feet, snouts and cheeks, smoked ox tongue, and the various other organs and glands that are common in Parisian restaurants and butcher shops have not really gained popularity on this side of the pond. More to the point, however, is that even when considering more mundane foods (like chicken or pork), the French do not kid themselves about what they’re eating. Forget about boneless, skinless chicken breasts crowded onto a Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped in plastic. At a French market, expect to see recently (and often only partially) de-feathered birds with the heads and feet still attached -- the easier to identify the choice “poulet de Bresse,” with its blue feet. Ditto for many other critters in the butcher’s stall, including rabbits, calves, pigs and sheep.

 At the poissonerie (fish stand), the langoustines crawl off their piles only to be periodically gathered up and thrown back on top as the busy fishmonger takes orders. Weird, bulging-eyed, eel-like fish (what ARE those things?) are displayed with their tails in their mouths.
Tightly-closed mussels, clams and oysters are bathing in a shallow pool. Shiny whole fish in an array of sizes, colors and shapes are arranged on a bed of shaved ice as if swimming through a sea current.

And then there’s the produce: an astonishing abundance of fruits and vegetables, virtually spilling off tables, mounded to impress or carefully arranged like pointillism. Heaps of golden chanterelles. Bound bunches of delicate wild asparagus. (I’d never seen it before.) Perfect pyramids of peaches and nectarines. Baskets overflowing with cherries. Vast tubs of glistening marinated olives. Oblong radishes attached to long, deep-green stems. Boxes of tiny, jewel-like wild strawberries. Ridiculously fragrant herbs of every imaginable variety, as well as custom-blended mixtures of fresh and dried herbs with scrawled signs outlining their suggested uses. Potatoes and beans, eggplants and peppers, berries and melons…everything so beautifully and purposefully placed that you feel certain that the art you are witnessing here is every bit as moving and real as all those oil paintings across town in the Louvre.

A Boy and a Snail

(originally posted 7/2/10)

Parents experience a variety of proud moments as they watch their children grow:  first word, first day of school, spelling bee victory, piano recital, high school graduation, Nobel Prize, Supreme Court confirmation.  I have known some of these and might know others in the future. However, while in Paris last week, I experienced one of my proudest moments to date.  My son ate a snail.

It was our first evening in the city. Having endured an overnight flight and a bleary half-day of sightseeing, we were very much feeling the mild disorientation that comes from great exhilaration combined with even greater exhaustion. We decided to eat dinner at a café just around the corner from our rented apartment and settled in for a carafe of wine and some down-to-earth fare.  My husband and I ordered a starter of escargots while we perused the menu.

My 13-year old son Paxton, tired and moody as we all were, flatly refused to sample one of our snails.  He had his mind and heart set on a steak-frites, and nothing was going to get in his way.  So we started working on our younger son Declan, who would turn nine the next day.  He appeared receptive but noncommittal.  He asked what the snail would taste like, and what was all that green stuff on top?  This was promising, as he has only recently emerged from a diet consisting primarily of pasta, chicken nuggets, peanut butter sandwiches and plain cheese pizza. 

Finally settling on a 10-euro bribe, Declan picked up the shell with a steel clamp, plucked out the escargot with a tiny fork, and scrutinized it as it dripped garlic, parsley and butter.  He sniffed, then examined it some more, carefully turning it and holding it up to the light.  Finally, after much discussion and only mild cajoling, and with a surprising amount of alacrity and enthusiasm, he popped it into this mouth and began chewing happily.  At that moment, several tables in our immediate vicinity erupted in applause, and we realized that at least a dozen people had been waiting to see if the little American boy would actually eat his first snail as they watched.  Declan was mortified.  My husband and I beamed.

Why do I care that he ate a snail?  Because it indicates a willingness to try something new, of course.  And since trying and loving new foods has been such a significant source of joy in my life, I felt a surge of happiness and hope that my son would now have all that pleasure available to him.  In that moment, his palate opened just a bit -- enough to let in a snail.  Not that he doesn't still enjoy a good slice of plain cheese pizza.  Don't we all?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Favorite Fish -- Sesame Teriyaki Salmon

(originally posted 5/29/10)

I don’t even remember when I first started making sesame teriyaki salmon. It had to be a long time ago, though, because it’s been the featured dish at so many events both large and small. I make it almost every time I go to Massachusetts to visit my mother, my sister Anne and her family (and now Anne makes it too). I’ve made it for New Year’s Eve dinner parties, book club gatherings, neighborhood progressive dinners, and Wednesday evening family suppers. Whenever someone says (incomprehensibly), “I don’t really care for fish,” I offer this dish to him or her, and nine out of ten times a convert is produced. Most significantly, both of my kids have requested this as their birthday dinner in recent years – a fact I consider a personal victory, as it sounded the death knell for Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese and Annie’s Shells as the foods of choice.

This is an ultra-simple recipe, using just a few ingredients that you probably already have on hand. I’ve altered it on numerous occasions (adding freshly grated ginger, for example), but always seem to return to the basics. I never measure, which tends to be a problem when trying to pass it on to others; so feel free to tweak the following recipe without the feeling that you’re altering something set in stone. Appropriately, it’s a zen kind of a recipe: one does what feels right, and that may vary according to the size of the garlic cloves, the proximity of the pan to the broiler, the thickness of the salmon and , of course, personal taste.

Last week, I made Sesame Teriyaki Salmon for some friends who gather on occasion to brush up on our French speaking skills – “le Club Francais.” Side dishes were orzo with lemon and herbs, and stir-fried veggies. This fish is both salty and sweet, and the powerful flavors call for rather straightforward accompaniments. Never hesitate to make some extra – it’s at least as good the next day as a cold or room-temperature treat.

Sesame Teriyaki Salmon

1. Get some good salmon fillet. I usually assume about 6 - 8 ounces per person, and look for the thick pieces (not the tail). Have the fishmonger skin it, unless you have a sharp fillet knife and plenty of confidence. When you get it home, cut the fish into portion-size pieces and place in a glass dish.

2. Find a glass jar with tight-fitting lid (I use an old pasta-sauce jar). Put the following ingredients in the jar (these are amounts for about 6 portions or 2 to 2 ½ pounds salmon):

- ½ cup honey
- ½ cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
- Few dashes sesame oil
- Few dashes cayenne pepper
- Freshly ground (coarse) black pepper – to taste (I use a LOT)

3. Shake jar vigorously to blend ingredients.

4. Pour teriyaki sauce over salmon portions, turn to coat, and refrigerate for a couple of hours.

5. Broil on top rack in foil-lined broiler pan, starting with skinned side up. Broil for about 2 to 3 minutes, until salmon begins to brown. Turn over salmon pieces, spoon some more teriyaki over, and top with sesame seeds. (I use a combination of regular and black seeds; whatever you have will be fine.) Broil until just cooked through and top is beginning to brown, 2 to 3 more minutes. Don’t overcook! If it browns too quickly, turn off the oven and let it sit on a lower rack in the warm oven for another minute or so. If you have the thin parts from the fish belly that brown and crisp, consider yourself lucky! This is the yummiest part.

6. If you have extra teriyaki sauce, you can boil it in a pan on the stove or in a Pyrex dish or measuring cup in the microwave, and use as sauce at the table. (I often make extra sauce just to have this option. My husband loves pouring it over plain rice.)


The Pleasure of Cooking for -- and with -- Friends

(orignally posted 5/19/10)

If there’s anything in the world better than cooking and sharing a great meal with good friends who really appreciate food, I swear I don’t know what it is.Keep your skydiving, your marathon-induced endorphin rush, your big promotion, your fantasy date with George Clooney. When you can make a meal that causes people you care about to literally moan and have to hold on to the counter to avoid falling down, you can die happy.

Okay, no one actually gripped the counter, but we did cook a meal Saturday evening that was so wonderful that the pleasure in my dining room was not only palpable but lingered for days, like a wonderful aroma. It wasn’t really all that special a meal in terms of ingredients, but the way that it came together was interesting, even auspicious. Barclay and I were overdue for a get-together with our friends Corinna and Peter, having had to cancel plans to dine out with them last week due to kids’ insanely overblown sports commitments. (Don’t even get me started on kids and sports. That’s a subject for another time.) When Corinna and I unexpectedly ran into each other during the week, we hurried to patch together something.

“Why not cook at home?” she offered.

“Great – what do you feel like?”

“Well, I have a couple of those little cryo-packed lamb racks from Wegmans; since the shelf-life is so long, I just bought a few last week with no specific plan for them.”

“Amazing! I have one of the very same lamb racks in my fridge, just waiting for an excuse. I also have some baby potatoes, and I can make a lemon cake.”

“Perfect! I think we have some baby bok choy we’d like to use up.”

“Awesome. Bring it all to our house on Saturday.”

Not only did they bring the lamb and bok choy, but to our delight they arrived with an excellent bottle of Cab, a slab of gruyere and some creamy bleu cheese. Kids were dispatched to the basement to play Wii, the wine was uncorked, and we dove into preparation.

A word about friends and food. I do have friends for whom food isn’t really all that important. To these folks, eating is one of the things you do to survive, and some foods taste better than others, but that’s the extent of the thought that goes into the whole proposition. My friends who feel this way are nice people with many positive and admirable qualities to counterbalance this unfortunate condition. However, I probably couldn’t be soul mates with them. It’s too great a chasm to cross, like a born-again Christian marrying an agnostic. Fortunately, Corinna and Peter are people who feel about food approximately the way we do, meaning they spend what many would consider an inordinate amount of time talking about and thinking about their last and their next meal. I’ve seen Corinna practically brought to tears by a particularly good baba gannouj. I’ve seen Peter bolt across the room holding a piece of flatbread with goat cheese and fig, panting, “You’ve got to taste this. You won’t believe it.” So while we don’t see them as often as we’d like, I feel a strong affinity for these people.

At Peter’s suggestion, the bok choy were halved and rolled in olive oil, then fitted into a giant roasting pan, where they were topped with chopped garlic and shallots, salt and pepper. Potatoes had received a similar treatment and both pans went in to roast.

Will someone please open that second bottle of wine?

We turned our attention to those adorable little racks of lamb. They weigh just under a pound apiece, and are sold by Wegman’s already “Frenched”: that is, trimmed of virtually all fat, with the rib bones scraped clean, so that when they are roasted and cut apart between the ribs, you are left with a tiny jewel of rosy meat on a curved bone that is often and aptly called a “lamb lollipop.” What could be cuter? I slathered them with good Dijon mustard, massaging it in with my fingers. (Cooking is always sensual. If it’s not, you’re probably doing something wrong.) I then coated them with a mixture of panko, chopped fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, held together with olive oil.

After about 25 minutes of roasting at 400⁰ and 10 minutes of resting, I cut apart the ribs. Holy cow.  Actually, holy sheep. They were so beautiful. While they rested, I made a sauce in their roasting pan using shallots, rosemary, wine and beef stock.

The very best part of cooking is when you and your guests take those first few bites, while your taste buds are relatively clear and the flavors and textures just explode in your mouth. The rolling of the eyes. The guttural noises. The feeling that all the difficulties and pains of life are outweighed by these moments of such pure sensual beauty. The gratefulness that something you have to do anyway – eating food – can be a source of so much pleasure. And most of all, that you have friends with whom you can share this joy.