Dinner with friends. lamb.
The phone rings as I am trying to pack up 20 years of books and papers and random things accumulated over all this time. It is my mother, calling from a friend's house. I had declined to join them for dinner, unsure whether I had been invited and overwhelmed by the work I still had to do. You were invited to dinner! Are you sure you don't want to join us? I'm exhausted. I've worked all weekend, and I'm trying to get all my stuff ready to move by the end of the week. A. gets on the phone. I've made rack of lamb! Just come over, eat, and go home! Normally I wouldn't hesitate for a second, but I haven't been able to see my bedroom floor for days. I've been having nightmares about shelves for weeks. On the other hand, as A. pointed out, I still have to eat dinner. I may as well join them.
A. lives in the heart of downtown, in a beautiful old building that was converted into luxury condominiums several years ago. It is perfect for the dinner parties she frequently hosts. The front door opens into a sort of little hallway that opens straight into the living space; first the open-plan kitchen on the right, then the long dining table, and then finally the sitting area. The space is defined by the arrangement of furniture and a few columns, anchored by the kitchen island that houses the sink on the kitchen side and a curved eating bar (set higher to hide kitchen clutter) on the dining side. It is modern without being cold (and in contrast to the carved-stone exterior), bright from all the windows looking over downtown, airy and warm and welcoming and incredibly inviting. I have eaten many a fantastic meal here, and when an invitation comes I leap at the chance to go.
I am late, and everyone is already eating when I get there. A narrow table perpendicular to the dining table acts as a buffet, with a plate of what look like whole potatoes, a deep pot of mashed potatoes, sauerbraten (beef marinated in vinegar and spices and roasted), a pile of slightly bitter fresh greens, and roasted vegetables. Everyone calls out greetings and suggestions; make sure to put sauce on the beef, put the roasted vegetables on top of the greens and eat them together. The beef is slightly overdone, the sauce is a little sweet, but it is still good. I can't figure out what A. did to the potatoes to make them so tender and creamy; they seem to be holding themselves together by force of will. The mashed potatoes are incredible, too. The roasted vegetables are sweet and tangy and perfect with the faintly bitter, crisp lettuce.
And then comes the rack of lamb. It's Giada's recipe!, says A. (We both like the Food Network, and experiment with the recipes we find there). The rack of lamb was roasted and then slathered with a bright pesto of mint and basil. She has substituted pine nuts for walnuts, and Asiago for Parmesan. That is the mark of a seasoned chef, who uses whatever is to hand, making changes with confidence and ease. And it works. The lamb is perfectly medium-rare, tender and juicy, not overwhelmingly lamb-y but with a subtle flavor. (A. goes to the butcher in the market, the Turkish one who once provided my dad with those lamb hearts I wrote about a few months back). Now I am glad that I jumped in my car and drove over, circling around before finding parking across the street. It was worth it, as I knew it would be.