Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cooking for Friends - In Memorium

It’s the middle of the week and I get a phone call from Robin. Robin is a friend of 20-something years. We first met when we both briefly worked together and instantly connected. We have remained good friends over the years and the changes time brings. I love being around her; she is the type of person who has a great enthusiasm for life that attracts friends easily. Robin says it looks like the weather will be good and wants to know if she and Bill, her husband can come “down” to visit one day this weekend. They live on LA’s west side which is more than an hour’s drive away on a good day; don’t even ask on a bad day, so it does require a little planning. They will bring their bikes and we will ride along the nearby beach bike path. After we decide on a date and I offer dinner “Chez Jelnick” as she so charmingly puts it, we hang up, happy in anticipation of the upcoming visit.

We like to cook for our friends, Steve and I, and Robin and Bill in particular. They are appreciative guests being “foodies” by virtue of being well-traveled and also by living in an area that has all things great food, including farmers markets, restaurants, bakeries, and cheese and wine shops. We listen to their vacation stories enviously as they recount tales of their exploits when renting villas in France and in Italy. But what that means to us is that we are able to be a little more adventurous when we cook for them than for some other friends or for either of our families.
We once had a couple to dinner for whom we prepared what we thought to be an unobjectionable pasta dish. Penne pasta in a chunky marinara type of sauce, melty havarti cheese some oregano and basil, garnished with kalamata olives and baked. A sort of more interesting version of Mac and cheese. The dinner went off well, appetizers and salad followed by the meatless main course, all accompanied by liberal amounts of wine and good bread and seasoned with agreeable conversation. As we finished up courses the used dishes were removed to the kitchen, where they piled up out of sight until the end of the evening when the guests had gone. It was only then we noticed that Ted’s dinner plate was scraped clean except for a small pile of olives that he had pushed to the side of the plate. What grown man picks out the olives from his dinner, we asked each other, amazed? But that experience has made us more sensitive about our ingredients and now we don’t take for granted that anyone will like things like say, beets, mushrooms, interesting cheeses or, even olives.
But Robin and Bill are a joy. We can cook anything for them and they are always eloquently appreciative. They are the best sort of guests.
So we discuss the menu for our friends with that in mind. If I am in charge of main course I try to dazzle with something that is not the usual. Perhaps a fresh vegetable galette.
Since we plan to be out for the afternoon, whatever is planned needs to be able to be prepared quickly when we come in. or at least be able to be completed while we are enjoying appetizers and wine. This particular dish qualifies, and has the added fun of not being “serious” food but more like picnic food.
They arrive at the time planned and we get on bikes and go off to enjoy the pleasure of a pleasant day, good company and the fun of people watching. We return a few hours later ready to take full advantage of the awaiting food and drink.
I have opted for a casual meal consisting of stilton cheese set out so it’s soft and spready; put out with chunks of bread and some grapes, and along with a large roasted vegetable tart. As we come in from our ride we clean up, pour wine and start setting out the food, which has the advantage of being the sort that can be eaten (and enjoyed) at room temperature. The tart is pre-sliced and it along with the other food goes outside with plates, silverware and napkins for a casual meal where everyone can just help themselves. Each food item is received with much appreciation and many questions about what went into the making of it. More wine is poured and we toast each other and before we know it, another day, and visit, has gone by.

Roasted Vegetable Galette
1. One 9-ounce sheet of puff pastry, chilled (I use galette dough)
2. 4 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
3. Salt and freshly ground pepper
4. 2 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5. 3 leeks, white and tender green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
6. Six 1-ounce fingerling potatoes, halved lengthwise
7. 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped thyme
8. 8 oil-cured olives, pitted and chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry 1/16 inch thick. Cut out a 12-inch round and transfer it to the cookie sheet. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
2. Arrange the tomatoes on a rimmed baking sheet, season with salt and pepper and bake for 1 hour.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the leeks, season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 10 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.
4. In a bowl, toss the potatoes with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When the tomatoes are done, slide them to 1 side of the baking sheet and scatter the potatoes on the other. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and golden and the tomatoes are lightly browned. Let cool.
5. Turn the oven up to 400°. Spread the leeks on the puff pastry round to within 1 inch of the edge. Top with the tomatoes, potatoes and thyme. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the edge is puffed and golden. Scatter the olives over the galette, cut into wedges and serve.
7. The recipe can be prepared ahead through Step 4; refrigerate the pastry and toppings overnight. Bring the toppings to room temperature before assembling and baking.

I wrote this some time ago before I started blogging. I have included it now in remembrance and and as a small tribute to my dear friend Robin, who died of lung cancer last Sunday night. Her loving genuine-ness and grand style were uniquely her. She will not be soon forgotten and she will be sorely missed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Work and Fun

Recently, I took another small step forward in regaining my life after the brain aneurism and its aftereffects.

I returned to my volunteer position at the Crystal Cove visitor center. Information at crystalcovebeachcottages.org/ This basically entails showing up for a four hour shift and sitting at a desk most of the time. Visitors stop in from time to time and occasionally have questions. Most of the questions are about the cottages; Crystal Cove is an area between Newport and Laguna Beach where people had started "camping" back in the twenties. The camping became more and more permanent and eventually they built makeshift cottages on the sites and coming back every year, and some even took up permanent residence. Rent was paid to the Irvine Company who owned the property. The state of California bought the 3 1/2 miles of beachfront, along with the cottages in 1979. Several of the cottages have been restored thus far and are available as overnight rentals. They are charming to see and are located at a very atttractive stretch of beachfront at very reasonable rates so the interest in them is high. That's not the only reason for the visitor center of course. We try to encourage people to know the history of the area and appreciate that and then perhaps they will also contribute in some way for the restoration of the remaining cottages. Resoration is not cheap. There is also an oceanfront restaurant named the Beachcomber located in the historic district that is very popular, as you might imagine.

So. That is my entry back into the living world, or my old routine world. Routines have taken on a new luster a after spending a month in the hospital, dependent on others. And, also we recently joined friends for a Duffy boat cruise in Newport Harbor. Dear Tracy had acquired three hours of Duffy through a charity silent auction bid. She invited us and three others along.. Since Tracy provided the venue, the rest of us brought food. My instinct is to try for something delicious and charming, sort of like you might see in Sunset Magazine or Coastal Living, when they show people boating. Then reality took over. Duffys are small boats, and we would be moving so balancing food that could get messy is not a good idea. I thought, some form of sandwich. and remembered my all-time favorite which I first tasted at Pearl Bakery in Portland. gorgonzola cheese and pears in walnut bread - amazing. I could make up little bite size sandwiches, I thought. Happily, I found a good walnut bread at the nearby farmers market which turned out to be just the thing. Then I thought about dessert, chocolate chip cookies seemed appropriate, the Toll House recipe is still on the package, I found. I made up a large batch and froze them a few days ahead. That was the extent of my cooking unfortunately. I purchased some “rollers” rolled sandwiches and a quiche from nearby Bristol Farms. I sliced the quiche ahead of time so it would be in bite-size portions for the cruise.

The cruise was grand. The weather was very warm and being out on a boat in Newport Harbor was an ideal place to be. Everyone brought either champagne or prosecco. So we cruised around the harbor, checking out how the other half lives. Pretty well, we all agreed. The houses are grand and the boats docked in front add to the grandeur. Three hours sped by easily. Lots of fun and silliness by all.

When will I learn that it’s not necessarily about the food? We had too much food although the cookies seemed to be the most popular thing, along with the champagne and prosecco. Dinner parties are about getting people together and enjoying the company. The food is incidental sometimes. I think this one could have been okay with just the walnut bread sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. I need to learn to let go. Okay, well, maybe quiche too, after all, we were on a boat, what if we got stranded somwhwere?
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