pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: company’s coming

’tis always the season for futzing . . . (at the cookstove, anyway . . .)

a hundred thousand years ago, at a bend in my life when i was mostly a dreamer, and under a rather dark cloud, i hoped i might grow up to be the sort of someone with friends who come for saturday lunch. i’d also hoped i’d live in a house where the walls were stacked in books, rows upon rows of them. and, for reasons that escape me, i dreamed of a bespectacled mate, one with his nose often in books; something of the professorial sort. check, check, and check, lo and behold.

not a day goes by that i don’t all but bend my creaky knees, and press them against the floorboards, whispering not only thank you’s, but practically screeching, holy mackerel how did my dimly-lit hopes come tumbling true?

but about that saturday lunch: there is something in particular about company lunch on a saturday that seems so, well, civilized. cultured, even. people with big ideas come for lunch. to get a jump on the thinking perhaps. to cogitate and prognosticate by the light of the sun. (people who want to plop on a couch inhaling hotdogs and football, they come for lunch too, but they’re not the ones of my attention today.)

dinner by candlelight is a whole nother thing, a thing that might entail the tucked-away china and silver. lunchtime, though, is cozier, maybe with a soupçon of euro-sophistication (it’s long been a way of life in paris, barcelona, or rome to insert a midday pause in the chaos, and relish a slow, sumptuous feast, unfurled in the afternoon’s heat.) and, besides, anything more haute than PB&J suggests true commitment to kitchen wizardry.

those who come for lunch, maybe can’t wait.

lunchtime company kicks off their shoes. settles in for old-fashioned simple foods. bounties built on the basics: soup, cheese, bread, fruit, unfettered sweets. (i suppose my tastes––even in menus––tend toward the monastic.)

but it’s not something i’ve ever done much of. not the sitting-down sort of a lunch. the lunch that’s not pulled from a grease-splattered paper sack, or laid out on the rickety old door of a table i refuse to retire out on our porch (the protests rise higher and higher, summer after summer, as the rickety door grows more and more rickety, but i like it too much to admit its demise).

at six-point-five decades and counting, i am still very much stumbling along. trying to make good on a few more of my dreams before my time is expired.

so it’s no small deal that company’s coming for lunch on the morrow. this particular company is coming with a wee baby, the most scrumptious sort of company i can imagine (especially since i’m not seeing any babes anywhere on the horizon here at this old house). this company is someone i dearly love though i’ve only just known him for the last several months (it was pretty much love at first zoom). he’s a new papa who is achingly in love with his new baby boy. and because he wrote me a bracingly beautiful, deeply vulnerable, letter the other day, i know this lunch will commence in the deep end, where feelings hew close to the heart, and eloquent words are put to the truths. i imagine there might be a tear or two, adding a droplet of salt to the menu.

in dreaming up the sort of lunch that might set the mood for the day, i settled on high comfort: grilled cheese and tomatoey soup, though i’m taking both up a whole notch.

grilled cheese is truly straightforward: bread + butter + cheese. sizzle low and slow for high-level melt. my aim is to dream up a scheme to make these ahead, and slice them into fingers, thus giving me the chance to stack them into a geometry of puzzling dimension (think: jenga of oozy-cheese strips).

and the soup prompted a deep dive into the cookery books, where i’ve settled on a non-negotiable trinity: san marzano tomatoes (tinned, as the lovely brits would put it), basil in leaves and stems, and rind of parmesan. a dribble of red-pepper flakes, an ooze of olive-y oil, a few cloves of garlic, and an overnight slumber in the fridge should provide a bowlful of summer in the darkening days of early december.

because i’m an inveterate futzer, and usually can’t manage to leave well enough alone, i almost never take one recipe’s word for the matter. i like to peruse and muse, and mix things up, culling my plot till it’s just the right calibration. in my mind, i’m cooking before i ever step near the cookstove, before i’ve laced up my apron strings.

because we’re at the cusp of the darkening season, with a few more weeks till the longest, darkest night of them all, it seems a fine moment to haul out the soup pot, and commence the stirring.

here, should you have reason for a saturday lunch, and find yourself in the mood for a summery bowl, is my game plan for provencal tomato, basil, parmesan soup, brought to you by a cooking collective.

Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup, a collective effort…

call me a futzer, or call me a fiddler (or maybe even a muddler), i cannot keep from plucking a little this, a little that, to reach for the stars. And so it goes at the cookstove, when more often that not i stand with an array of roadmaps and mull over the smart way to go. a parmesan rind from Column A, stems of basil from B. 1 + 1 = 3 in my arithmetic book. 

here’s my final equation, when the assignment was a splendid tomato basil soup with undernote of parmesan for saturday lunch with a friend….

Provençal Tomato, Basil, Parmesan Soup

By Martha Rose Shulman and Ali Slagle and Babs

Time: 1 hour
Yield: Serves four 

Martha learned to make this soup years ago when she lived in France. She tells us that if there are no fresh tomatoes at hand, use canned. And she thickens with rice or tapioca, which we’re forgoing, at least on the first go-round. Ali chimes in: “What if you could have a tomato soup that was as plush as a cream of tomato but tasted like pure tomato? Enter Parmesan. Simmering tomatoes with a Parmesan rind is like seasoning a bowl of soup with a shaving of cheese 100 times over. It gives the soup an undercurrent of savory fat and salt that only bring out tomato’s best sides. Many specialty groceries sell containers of rinds, but if you can’t find any, stir 1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan into the final soup (or cut off the rind of a wedge you’re working through). Rinds will keep in the freezer for forever, so start saving.” Babs echoes and amplifies both, having plucked the very best bits from each of the kitchen geniuses.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 to 6 garlic cloves (to taste), minced
1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes
Salt to taste
2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes with juice, or 4 pounds tomatoes, cored and diced
Pinch of sugar (optional)2 large sprigs basil, or about 16 leaves, plus 2 tablespoons slivered basil for garnish
[i’m skipping Ali’s call for 1 quart water (or 1/2 wine, 1/2 water), because i’m doubling up on San Marzano tomatoes]
6 ounces Parmesan rind
 Freshly ground pepper to taste
1⁄4 cup rice or tapioca (optional; i’m trying without it. if necessary, we’ll float our grilled cheese bits in the tomatoey pond.)

For the Garnishes
Garlic croutons (thin slices of baguette, lightly toasted and rubbed with a cut garlic
Grated or shaved Parmesan 

—Heat oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven. Add onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about five minutes. Stir in half the garlic and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute. Add the tomatoes, sugar (if adding), basil sprigs or leaves and remaining garlic. Cook, stirring often, until tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, 15 to 20 minutes. 

––Add Parmesan rind and salt to taste. Bring to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer 30 minutes. (If adding the tapioca or rice, add it at the 15-minute mark, then simmer for the remaining 15 minutes until tapioca is tender and the soup fragrant.) Remove basil sprigs and Parmesan rind. Puree in a blender in small batches, taking care to place a towel over the top of the blender and hold it down tightly. (Martha adds: If you used fresh unpeeled tomatoes and want a silkier soup, put through a strainer, using a spatula or the back of a ladle to push the soup through.) Return to the pot, add pepper to taste and adjust salt. Serve garnished with garlic croutons and/or Parmesan, if desired, and slivered basil leaves. If serving cold, refrigerate until chilled. 

 Advance preparation: The soup will keep for two or three days in the refrigerator and can be frozen. 

what wintry recipe will you be bringing to your lunchtime table?

the dinner party

it started with a phone call one cold sunday afternoon, not so long ago. are you free next saturday night, was the plain-and-simple question.

yes, came the answer, after the requisite checking of calendar, double-checking with spouse, most likely checking in with kiddies to make sure they too could pencil it in. or tap it in, or however it is cyber-tots lock in a date these days.

once secured in the affirmative, another phone call was made. same question posed, left there on the recordable secretary.

and so began the cobbling of souls, the making of lists that for me is, well, about the hummingest hum i know.

i am, it seems, never so quick in the pulse as when i am deep in constructing a dinner party.

if given one more day of my life i think, yes, i do, i would call up everyone i love, and plenty of folks i don’t even know but would love to. i’d order up as many leaves for the table as i possibly could, break down the living room wall if i had to, to make room for all of the chairs. and then i would cook, cook, and cook some more.

oh, did i mention i’d borrow plenty of knives? for, darn it, i only have nine. although, somehow, in the spoon and the fork departments, i am swimming. i think when we were married, when slim little boxes came in many-a-day’s mail, there must have been some sort of 2-for-1 sale on all the parts of the place setting, except for the parts that do cutting. which means you might come for soup, and maybe some ice cream, if you come with more than eight of your friends. and surely, hopefully, some day you’ll come.

for, surely, positively, this is the truth: i would if i could spend the rest of my days dreaming up, doing, yes, even drying the dishes from dinner party piled on dinner party here at my drafty old house.

in fact, so nutty am i for le diner that i looked up from my vacuuming the other afternoon to tell my sweet mate the very something i was thinking at that very moment. then i stopped myself. said, “oh no, that’s too irish.”

to which he urged, “no, tell me.”

i hemmed. hawed. then spilled it: “when i die, skip the wake; just do a dinner party.”

to which, of course, he moaned.

and i went right on vacuuming fur balls.

so it was, all day saturday i found myself humming. humming, you should know, is me at my, well, purring-est.

i was, all at once, cooking, setting the table, imagining the conversations. i was deciding who would sit where for maximum conversational flow. oh, and i was putting out proud tall candles, and snipping the stems of tulips. red ones in february.

to lay out a table for a dinner party is to be bold. is to be alive, really. to be filled to brimming with all sorts of possibility.

it is, i realized, as i lifted the lid on the steeping, steaming coq au vin–my idea of the perfect february dinner party dinner–the most sacramental moment, perhaps, in this holy place we call home.

it is gathering friends, and sometimes near strangers. it is paying no mind to color or age, or political side of the table. it is inviting muslim to sit down with jew. it is asking the atheist to join hands as you stop and offer a few words of grace before picking up fork and, well, keep from jabbing.

it is detente over dinner. it is catching a gleam in the eye as you pass down the butter. it is laughing so hard over salad, you wipe the tears from your eye–and not at all from the shallot.

try not feeling fondly toward the one who pours a splash more merlot in your glass.

it is, wholly, the breaking of bread, and all that that means going back to the dawn of civilization.

it is eucharist, small “e,” defined: bread and wine, yes, but really, “the giving of thanks, offering graciously.” leave it to the greeks and the romans to give it a name, to launch it. the french to refine it. you and me to make it our own.

it is unfurling ideas and stories there at the old family table. it is drawing out thoughts from those you’ve asked to pull up a chair. it is listening. it is returning the thought with a question. and maybe another, and another.

it is, before you even get to the table, making the house come alive, igniting its reason for being. kindling lights. cranking the stove. making a fire. putting on mozart. or muddy waters. it is opening the door, with a gust of warm, wine-sodden air that can’t help but sweep in those shivering there on the stoop.

and for the one doing the inviting, it begins long before the bell rings.

it begins, for me, as i pluck from thin air the someones i’m dying to know, or simply to gather again at the edge of my table. the ones who i think will make for fine conversation. whose stories we might not yet know. whose ideas might rub off on my children.

a dinner party with children, i’ll have you know, is the height of my dinner-party definition. oh, i love a gathering of grownups. but i believe in bringing the children, more than once in a very scant while.

it is there, where the art of the napkin is figured out, that life’s lastingest curriculum is spread.

i am not, never have been, one to segregate the little people. i don’t believe in banishing the squirmers off in the kitchen. oh no. let them squirm right here among us. let them learn how to listen. let them learn the art of unspooling the story. let them follow words to a simmer, then rise to almost a boil, but right then, before the lid blows, let them absorb the knack for cooling it down to a slow gentle bubbling again.

and so it was, last saturday night, that i laid out a table for 12. spent the whole day, and part of the one before, toiling away. picking out cremini mushrooms. uncorking bordeaux. mismatching old plates. scribbling names onto red folded cards.

not a minute felt like a chore, or anything close. it was joy, only joy, pure, simple, undiluted.

there is something, i swear, to making a table that sparkles. to filling bowls and baskets and platters to spilling. to stoking the evening to come.

there is dinner. and then there is feasting.

saturday night at my house, we feasted. till our bellies–and hearts–were stuffed near to bursting.

when it was over, the last napkin tossed down the chute, the last bit of cake tucked away, i only had room for a very full sigh.

ever since, i’ve been licking my lips on all that’s leftover. and i don’t mean what’s in the fridge.

do you too love a dinner party? are you daunted sometimes by the notion? or have you mastered the grace of making it seem effortless? like something you do at the drop of any old reason? what are your secret ingredients to a dinner that lingers long after the lights are turned out? do you have a tried-and-true menu that works every time? or do you indulge in experimenting on company? is there a dinner you’ll never forget, and why?