Friday, August 9, 2013

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.

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