Friday afternoons leave me happier than almost any time of the week. A solid five days of work, the feeling of having done something good in the world, dozens of connected conversations and graded papers and early mornings and heady anticipationsall of it behind me. And the freedom of the weekend: a wide-open space.
Sometimes, nothing feels better than Friday afternoon at four.
This Friday at four, I was at home, chopping up tomatoes and consulting recipes. Friends were due at 7 pm, and I had ambitious plans. For days, I had been fiddling with the menu, trying to find the right fit. After all, this needed to be a vegan feast.
Daniel constantly amazes me. He speaks at least five languages and has every fact about 20th-century history at his fingertips. He tends the most profuse, diverse garden Ive ever seen, with plants from Chile, the Himalayas, South Africa, and China. And he can recite the Latin names of every one of them. He lived in Japan for fourteen months, has visited every continent, and possesses an avid passion for traveling to the rest of them. Seemingly, he knows how to do everything. (But apparently, hes no good at dancing. Whew. I wouldnt know, since he wont let me see it. But Ive heard reports.) But when he laughs, I mean really really laughs, he looks just like a little boy.
And he has been a vegan for 30 years.
How do I feed him?
And not just him, but also our dear friends Lisa and Mane. Lisa feels eternally young. When we see each other, spontaneously, we huddle together and talk in conspiratorial tones about the last two hours of our lives. She nudges me in the arm and laughs hard, a little whinnying at the top of it, joy coming out of her. She and Daniel have led trips to Spanish-speaking countries for years. Ive heard so many stories about the beauties of Cuba that I am perpetually jealous. Lisas wonderful husband, Mane, comes originally from Spain. Jocular and open, he looks at you hard as he listens. He too has a beautiful gigglehis shoulders shake and he snickers, from deep in the belly. And on top of all this, he is the only known gardener in Seattle to coax a pomegranate tree to fruit. No one else.
What a talented group there would be in my living room.
Mostly, though, theyre just my friends.
Daniel has been feeding me for years. Exquisite, intricate-tasting, vegan food, on the balcony of his house, overlooking Eden in Seward Park. I can always count on eyes-closed appreciation moments at Daniels house. We could have eaten there again, but his dear partner, Jeff, had just left for Puerto Rico. And Lisa just had her kitchen remodeled, so she was in no mood to cook. I wanted to feed everyone, and I wanted it to be good.
And these strange blue pods from China, like Muppet fava beans. When you slither them open, they reveal shiny black seeds encased in clear, bluish pulp. Lisa and I shrieked, because it looked a spine, or a fat slug. But we stood in the kitchen, all of us, lowering our mouths to the sudden openings, slurping up the seeds with varying gusto. Once we sucked them clean of the sweet, mild pulp, we pursed the seeds between our lips and spit them into the trash. Then laughed.
–marinated goat cheese (see Fridays post for the recipe and photo)
–homemade hummus with gluten-free crackers
–Mount Athos olives, shriveled, black and puckering in the mouth
–a gorgeous artisan goat cheese from Carr Valley cheese in Wisconsin. Thank goodness for Metropolitan Market, which is featuring American artisan cheeses all this month. This Cocoa Cardona? Aaaah. A semi-soft goat cheese, with a cocoa powder rind. Not sweet at all, just smooth and dark. We all oohed and ate this one.
You may be wonderingdid Daniel eat them? He did. After a quarter century of being a vegan, he seems to have bent just a bit the past few years. Occasionally, hell eat goat cheese. Somehow, that feels more equitable to him than cows milk. Im glad hes flexible on that. Those cheeses were a joy. I wouldnt want to have missed them.
I have a large apartment, but of course we huddled in the kitchen, at first. And not just the kitchen, but the tiny nook under the skylights, where the food beckoned. But soon I had to turn the oven up to 425°, and that drove everyone to the living room.
This was the big surprise of the evening. When I had dinner with Matt at Le Pichet a few weeks ago, he mentioned that he was thinking of some roast cauliflower for his sisters dinner. Cauliflower roasted with cocoa powder. What? I had never heard of this, although my mind turned toward it. He said that he had learned at CIA (the Culinary Institute of America, for those who dont know), that it was standard stuff there. Hesitant, I hadnt made it yet. Not because I didnt trust him, but because I havent liked cauliflower my entire life. Too rigid. Too chalky. Too.…bleh. But Daniel had made some sauteed cauliflower once that tasted surprisingly good. And he has been urging me to conquer my fears ever since.
As we laughed and talked, the guests in the living room, me in my familiar place before the stove, I tossed the cauliflower florets in Spanish olive oil, sea salt, and pepper. At the last moment, I decided to toss on some of this smoky Spanish paprika, dark red with a kick. And then, with a fine-mesh sieve, I sifted on some Ghiradellis unsweetened cocoa powder. Why this combination? A little chocolate and chile, mole sauce taste. I had no idea how it would work.
Twenty minutes later, Daniel was exclaiming, Mane was groaning, Lisa was shaking her head in excitement, and I was just grinning. Oh god, this was good. Earthy, rich roasted, layers of tastethis roasted cauliflower was unforgettable. Im going to make it again and again.
Maybe next summer Ill conquer my fear of beets.
We sat in the living room, the boys with their backs up against the wall, Lisa and I cross-legged on the couch. Not yet full, we dined on rich, gorgeous pesto soup (from a secret source, so I cant tell you more). And then they had second bowls. We started talking about food, of course. The food of our childhoods: Daniel in Arkansas, me near LA, Lisa in Seattle, and Mane in Seville. Spontanteously, we went around the room, listing our typical breakfasts. Then lunches. Then dinners. Poor Daniel had to pick okra. We agreed that Mane had it best, with his three-course meals every lunch, and not a bit of junk food in sight. I wish Id grown up in Spain, especially because every lunch seemed to have involved garbanzo beans in some form. (And apparently, when he grew up, the saying was not the black sheep of the family, but the black garbanzo bean. I love that.)
And finally, another new recipe I was eager to try: millet and butternut squash fritters. Another splendid recipe from The Splendid Grain. Millet, which was originally grown in Asia and whose correct name is proso, is most commonly sold in this country as bird seed. (Or at least some forms of it are.) Shame, that, because it has more iron than any other grain, makes a complete protein, and cooks up beautifully. And as with all these unusual grains, it once grew abundantly throughout the world, including in the Roman empire and northern China, where is was more popular than rice. Farmers in the midwest grow it in abundance. But having grown up in Southern California, in 70s and 80s, I had never heard of it. Id certainly never eaten it. And even though I have been experimenting with every gluten-free grain I could try, I still hadnt cooked any recipes with millet.
Easy to make, the fritters look as though theyre going to be all wrong at one point. After I toasted the grain, it felt strange to put them in water, with cubes of butternut squash, raw ginger, and toasted mustard seed. I worried, about 5 pm, that these were going to be awful. But with the right mix of water (3 cups of water to 1 cup of millet), the millet absorbs all the liquid and becomes as soft as polenta. When it had cooled, I threw in handfuls of cilantro, then fried them up in olive oil. Oh baby. These were divine.
There was more. An apple-ginger crumble. But at that point, it felt like gilding the lily. Everything else had already tasted so good. Such wonderful friends. Such a lovely Friday evening.
GRILLED MILLET AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH CAKES, from The Splendid Grain (158)
1 cup of millet
1 teaspoon of mustard seed
1 teaspoon of curry powder
2 1/2 cups of water
2 cups of peeled and diced butternut squash
1 teaspoon of minced fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
1/2 cup of chopped fresh cilantro
Put the millet in a saucepan or wok over high heat. Toast, stirring constantly, for about four minutes, or until the first seed pops. Wash, drain, and set aside. Toast the msutard seeds and curry powder for one minute, or until aromatic.
Put the millet and spices, water, squash, ginger, and sea salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes, or until the millet has absorbed all the water. Remove from teh heat and let cool.
Add the cilantro to the millet mixture. Wet your hands and blend the millet mixture to a fairly uniform consistency. Form into twelve cakes. Grill for about three minutes on each side, or until golden. Serve hot.