Eating. dinner with friends.
A. has invited us to dinner, and it is with a sense of anticipation that I walk to her apartment. I am the first to arrive, with a bottle of wine bulging unglamorously from my bag. There are pots on the stove, lids hiding their contents from my eyes; two racks of lamb are resting on the counter, carpeted with breadcrumbs and herbs. On the narrow table set perpendicular to the dining table are some cold dishes: roasted portabello mushrooms, a piece of smoked salmon, a leafy salad, roasted vegetables tossed with olive oil and left to rest at room temperature. I watch A. slice loaves of bread that have been warming in the oven as we wait for the others to arrive, one by one. It is a meeting of the three best cooks I know (plus another who is reputed to be an excellent cook), and as usual the talk is all about food.
J. makes the point that she, although one of the best cooks I know, is not particularly interested in eating. She is like my mother (although in recent years I have come to feel that my mother cares more about food than she likes to admit, and at least twice I have seen her eat more than me, even though I must outweigh her by a good forty pounds), who knows good food and is an extraordinary cook, but a somewhat indifferent eater, with certain prejudices and restrictions. A. is different; she has no restrictions, no prejudices in the kitchen. She is more than twice my age, more skilled in the kitchen, with more taste, experience, and certainly a more profound appreciation for the mysteries of the kitchen, but I like to believe that we are two of a kind, with our imported sea salt and frequent use of recipes from the Food Network.
At the table we graze through the cold dishes as the lamb roasts, and A. puts the final touches on the osso buco, sprinkling the tender veal with a gremolata that will add a crisp brightness to the dish, with the tastes of orange and fresh parsley (she has left out the garlic, because J. doesn't like it). A pot of mashed potatoes has been keeping warm; they are perfect for soaking up the luscious wine sauce from the osso buco, which disguises the fact that the mashed potatoes have been made with soy milk (surprisingly good). A cautious poke with a metal pick, and two perfect rounds of marrow pop out from the bone, and I am in heaven. There is much joking around about the merits of domestic lamb versus lamb imported from New Zealand or Australia; we all declare that there must be further tasting before we can come to any decision.
A. is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up, if I didn't have my mother's example to follow. She, like the other two master cooks, knows how to prepare a meal, whether for four people or fourteen. There are dishes that can be made ahead, a day or two or perhaps even three, like the cold roasted vegetables, the osso buco which needs time to develop its flavor anyway, the roasted portabello mushrooms that are sliced and left to cool in their own juices. Some courses can be bought, like the smoked salmon and the dessert - there is no shame in a bought cake, and for years my mother has brought home tarts from Le Panier and intense chocolate tortes from Fran's. One or two things may need last-minute cooking, or a gentle reheating, but the guests are happy to talk to each other as they eat the first course.
There is tiramisu from Whole Foods, and a hilarious discussion about various subjects such as a disastrous wagon-dinner during a school-reunion trip and the difficulty of taking extremely conservative people to any movie that involves nudity. This is the life, I tell you; good food, good friends, good wine, and laughter.