Something about this week’s dinner was special. It all just came together, as if with no effort. It was simple and fun and easy, so easy that I hardly had to think about the details at all. My mind could just rest with the fun of the evening. Maybe, after a month of regular dinner parties, I’m simply on a roll. Perhaps with all this experience, having guests over is nothing to sweat anymore. It is getting a bit easier in that way, I suppose, but there was definitely something else behind the pleasant easiness of this particular week’s meal. I’m not saying I know what that something else was. And I like it that way too, not exactly knowing. It lends a sort of mysteriousness to the whole night, a sense that some other element was at work, something just barely beyond our reach but most certainly there, something that aligned all the invisible cogs and wheels to set in motion the rare perfect evening.
The cooking itself even turned out to be a complete breeze. Each dish was prepared simply, with nothing too fancy or over the top. Each tended towards rustic, with a small handful of good ingredients prepared in careful but uncomplicated ways. And it all was so beautiful, just in its own natural simplicity.
Of course, our special guests, my cousin Joe and his gorgeous girlfriend Thy, had plenty to do with the creation of such an extraordinary time. These two were just so fun to be with. We laughed all night long. As soon as they left, Ben and I turned to each other and asked the same question: “Why in the world have we waited so long to have them over?” They only live a neighborhood away, and we’ve meant to have them for dinner at least a half dozen times. But you know how that goes, life just gets in the middle of everything, and things you mean to do sometimes don’t materialize right away. The funny thing is, I’ve known Joe nearly all my life. We played together all the time as kids, but we haven’t spent any quality time together since we were little. With such a big family, during the infrequent times we’re all together, I end up spending just a little bit of time with everybody, rather than a good amount of time with any single one. And so – and I’m sure this is the case with just about every cousin I’ve got – while I’ve known Joe for ages, I haven’t had the chance in a long, long while to spend any significant time with him, to connect with him, or to really, actually know him. Suddenly, fifteen years have gone by all too fast, and my little cousin Joe is this whole other person that I’ve never even gotten to know. And it was just really good to finally get to meet him.
Okay now, enough of that. How about we focus these gushy sentiments elsewhere, say, like on the food :). First up, the hors d’oeuvres. To borrow a word from Wonka, these were scrumdiddlyumptious. Seriously, these are one of those things (and I’ve got a few of them up my sleeve, which I’ll be sure to relay to you in good time) that are so incredibly tasty, there is no word in the English language to do them justice. The main ingredients are so simple: Garlic, and lots of it. A good punch of heady rosemary too. A few strips of salty and peppery pancetta, and a decent handful of sharp, nutty Parmesan. These four components all take center stage, singing in perfect harmony, each voice loud and strong, all demanding your full and rapt attention, but without seeming like they’re competing with each other for it. It’s a perfect chorus of deliciousness.
These four ingredients are ground together with a pinch of parsley for a bit of brightness, and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil, for texture. And then this glorious conglomeration is smeared atop toasted circles of French bread crostini, which are placed under a broiler until they’re bubbling and fragrant and gorgeously golden brown. You’ll just have to try them out for yourself, to see just what I mean. And I promise, they’re all too easy!
Next up, the soup. And who doesn’t love butternut squash soup? But it’s not so much the soup I love, as the process behind it. I love taking the slow, subtle, careful steps necessary for making a truly divine bowl of soup. The ingredients and procedure are utterly simple for any bowl of pureed butternut. But it’s the care you take in following this procedure, the respect you show to these few simple ingredients, which make all the difference in the world. The key to a sublime result lies in slow, sloooooow cooking. Onions, leeks, garlic and herbs get cooked in butter over the lowest of heat, until they’re soft and glistening and nearly melting into each other. I keep the lid on, stirring only now and again, to allow them as much time as possible, so that they become mellow and sweet and fragrant. The squash too is ever so slowly cooked, roasting away in the oven for up to two hours, until its caramelly deep orange flesh is as soft and tender as warm butter.
Then these lovely vegetables that you’ve so tenderly prepared are combined with rich and flavorful homemade chicken stock. They simmer for a time at a gentle bubble. And it’s during this time that all the splendid flavors meld together, weaving themselves into a gorgeous but rustic fabric, one that magically transforms into the finest of golden silk with a spin in a blender.
After such utter smoothness, the next course up turned out to be a delightful switch. A crunchy and refreshing salad, full of snappy shards of shaved fennel, bright leaves of fresh green herbs, ribbons of aged Parmesan, creamy white beans and a pungent, mustardy vinaigrette – all piled high atop a golden, crispy pan-fried chicken breast. So rustic and simple. A little sloppy even, to tell the truth. But, my! What flavors!
A salad like this would be great on its own – indeed, a few nights later we enjoyed big bowls of it all by itself, for a quick dinner. But served atop the chicken, you just can’t beat it. It’s so fast and easy to whip up. Just prep all the salad components ahead of time, and mix them all together as the chicken fries. It’s so completely simple, it could easily be a weekday meal. But it’s so beautiful and soooo delicious, it can be perfect too for a special night just like this one.
Dessert was simple too, especially considering that the candied kumquats were already taken care of, ready and waiting in cute little jars. I’d been wanting to try this recipe for olive oil cake (by the illustrious Suzanne Goin…again…seriously, I think her cookbook is just so rad) for a long time now. And after studying olive oil in Spain for two months, the wanting turned into a needing. Tonight ended up being the perfect time to finally do so.
The sugar-soaked citrus and fluffy whipped cream were a perfect complement to this ultra moist cake, with its faint hints of spicy, herbal olive oil. It was truly delicious, and we all agreed, it was a perfect treat. Looking back, I think this simple and elegant dessert ended up being the star of the night, and a subtle yet grand finally to a simple and elegant meal.