Years ago, my brother did something I’m still thinking about today.
I don’t talk about him much on this site, because he’s a private person, but my brother is one of my dearest friends in the world. Endlessly thoughtful, incisive, and a touch sardonic, my brother looks at the world with a critical eye. And a kind heart. He’s 3 1/2 years younger than me, so I’ve always looked after him. Now, however, people always assume he’s the older sibling. Where I’m goofy giddy joy most of the time, he’s the one holding back, waiting for further judgment. If that makes him sound too serious, you should know that only three people in the world make me laugh so hard my belly hurts: my husband, my best friend Sharon, and my brother.
(After Waiting for Guffman came out, my brother called me immediately after seeing it and said, “If you do not like this movie, I’m going to have you de-registered as my sister.” Have I told you that Waiting for Guffman is one of the most important movies of my life? I used to use it as a litmus test when dating. If a guy didn’t like it, forget about it. Luckily, Danny loves it too.)
With the exception of when I lived in New York and London for four years, my brother and I have always lived within an hour of each other. These days, we live five minutes away from each other on Vashon Island. His wife is one of my favorite people in the world. His son, my much-beloved nephew, is Lucy’s favorite person, aside from her mama and daddy. I feel extraordinarily lucky.
But all this is by way of explanation for this small story.
When my dear friend Tita met Danny for the first time, she knew he was the right man for me. She said she could tell by my joyful ease as I sat next to him, across from her and John at their picnic table. But it was more than that.
“Don’t you realize? You had never brought a man to meet us before,” she said.
It’s true. Even though I had dated a few men in earnest (and oh, was I earnest before I met Danny), I had never brought them home. I don’t mean bringing a man home to my parents. I only wanted to introduce a man to my parents after I was engaged to him, a big step in a relationship I already knew would last. (Danny actually proposed to me the night before he was going to meet my parents for the first time.) . But John and Tita? They are my dearest friends on Vashon. My touchstones. (John has always known how to cut me down to size, playfully.) Simply, they are the wisest people I know.
Tita loved Danny from the first 5 minutes she met him. Six years ago, he was much more shy than he is now, although he’s still a shy kid at heart. I had been a little worried they wouldn’t see the man I loved in that first meeting. But they did.
“Do you know why I already know I like Danny?” Tita asked me. I listened, interested. “Because it’s clear that he is so much more than he seems at first. My favorite people in the world are the ones who don’t announce themselves, loudly, when you first meet them. They’re the ones that you know, slowly, quietly, over years of friendship. My favorite people are the ones who are far more complex than they seem.”
I had never put it that way before, in my mind. Or maybe I had never been as wise as Tita, so I didn’t know what she said. For years, I had fallen for the loud ones: the dark and stormy Slovenian poet, the Swiss mime who lived in Paris, the impetuous romantic I met on a surprise flight to Las Vegas. They each gave me fits of passion and terrible pain. But Danny? He was so easy to love, right from the beginning. The longer we know each other, the more we know each other. And the less we have to prove.
I feel that way about food now too.
When I first started cooking in earnest after finding out I had to be gluten-free, I wanted to celebrate every dish. Looking back now, I was a little loud, with a lot to prove. Look at this food! It’s gluten-free! But it’s delicious! See? Celiac isn’t so bad! I don’t blame myself. Everything was new. I wrote for myself and a few friends on this site, then people started coming in droves. Maybe I was self-conscious. Maybe I had to go through the equivalent of the Slovenian poet before I could calm down a bit and enjoy quieter meals.
It was in this period that I first encountered Nigel Slater. Friends I trusted raved about his book, The Kitchen Diaries. I looked through it, a bit confused. Certain pages made me hungry but the book was just what it said: a diary of meals. Where were the fabulous recipes that tested my culinary knowledge? Where were the crazy flavor combinations that would demonstrate my newfound skills? I was dating a chef, we were eating meals at midnight, and I wanted to learn every technique and pan sauce I could devour. I returned the book to my friend and forgot about it.
Nigel Slater, I’m sorry I underestimated you.
These days, I always have one of Nigel Slater’s books near me while I write. He’s my reminder to reign in my tomfoolery and just tell a story. His quiet cooking looks deeply satisfying without it being about him. It’s about the food. He’s a home cook — even if a masterfully talented one — who is determined to not be a chef. He picks food from his garden, brings it in the kitchen, cooks up something delicious, and shares it with whoever is there for him to feed.
“There is something quietly civilizing about sharing a meal with other people. The simple act of making someone something to eat, even a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, has a many-layered meaning. It suggests an act of protection and caring, of generosity and intimacy. It is in itself a sign of respect.”
A meal as a sign of respect. I like that.
Nigel Slater’s food is a pan full of ripe apricots, poached in sugar and lemon verbena tea, with a star anise thrown in. Those apricots are lush and fall apart at the touch. The syrup, when reduced and drizzled on a plate of those apricots, makes something wonderful to share with a friend on a summer evening. This is the only kind of dessert I want right now.
Slater’s on Twitter now (@realnigelslater), where he answers specific questions about dishes and writes simple recipes for what he is cooking that moment. One day, he wrote that in the heat of the day, the only lunch he wanted was watermelon, feta cheese, briny black olives, and a splash of olive oil. Danny, Lucy, and I ate some the next day, outside on our deck, on the first warm day of the summer. Nigel Slater was right. It was just the right lunch.
I wish I could share a meal with this man.
Cooking has become so much more than it used to be for me. The words about the cooking have become quieter. Honestly, sometimes I think if I didn’t write this site, I think I might enjoy my meals more. There’s this unbending pressure on all the places around blogs (Twitter, Facebook, Stumbleupon, Instagram, Reddit, etc.) to shout our BEST! and PERFECT! and YOU MUST MAKE THIS! I feel sometimes like I’m standing in the middle of a big market, listening to jewelry sellers hawking their wares. And I feel the pressure to hold out my jewels too.
But my favorite moments of food are hardly worth mentioning.
We’re in Tucson right now, staying for a few days with Danny’s parents. We have spent most of our time here in the house, gathered around the kitchen table drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, or sitting together at the dining room table, joining hands in a sweet Amen before we dig into the food. Lu doesn’t need much more than being with them, plus time to play in the garage. We can’t go far. Danny’s dad has slowed down dramatically in the last few years. He’s aching with arthritis, unable to sleep much for the pain in his shoulder, and hampered by exhaustion. He’s napping a couple of times a day, more than Lu. His entire world has dwindled down to his bed, the kitchen table, the dining table, and the chair in front of the television.
Every night, Danny’s dad has a glass of chocolate milk to take the dozen or so pills he must swallow before bed. Danny’s mom had bought a half gallon of whole milk for Lu. The first night we were here she mixed up some chocolate syrup in the whole milk instead of the skim milk he has been drinking. The next day, he told us, with joy in his eyes, about the surprise of that glass of chocolate milk. “It was so rich it was like drinking a milkshake. I’d never had a glass of chocolate milk like that before.” He told us about it again, later that evening, just before he had another glass.
We’ve eaten some wonderful meals while we have been here. But what I will remember best is Danny’s dad’s memory of that glass of chocolate milk.
And my favorite moments of the days before we left for this trip was standing in dappled sunlight in our kitchen, cutting up apricots for this Nigel Slater cake.
As always, Tita was right. She knew this truth long before I did: the best food (and people and writing and moments) is the kind that may seem pretty simple at first. The best food isn’t shouted but shared quietly instead.
APRICOT AND STRAWBERRY CAKE, adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard
This cake is far more than it seems. It’s a homey, even homely cake: it’s dimpled with almond bits and cracked in places on the top. It barely stands three inches high. This is not the cake you make when you want to impress people with your baking abilities. Fondant would be absurd.
However, put it on the table and watch friends take small slivers, then take more. It’s dense with ripe fruit, whole-grain flours, raw sugar, eggs, and not much more. It doesn’t even have baking powder in it. This is a snacking cake, meant to be shared with the love of your life long after you stopped dating and started being yourselves.
200 grams (4 or 5 large) ripe apricots
170 grams (about 1 cup) ripe strawberries, tops removed, quartered
3 tablespoons honey
100 grams slivered almonds
175 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour mix
6 ounces (1 1/2 US sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
175 grams (1 cup minus 2 tablespoons) demarara sugar (also known as raw sugar)
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons whole milk
Preparing to bake. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with a round of parchment paper. Grease and flour the parchment paper and sides of the pan.
Preparing the fruit. Cut the apricots in half. Remove the pits. Chop the apricots coarsely. Combine with the strawberries in a large bowl. Drizzle the fruit with honey and let them mingle while you prepare the rest of the cake.
Combining the dry ingredients. Put the slivered almonds into the bowl of a food processor. Run the processor until the almonds are ground to the size of breadcrumbs but stopping before they become almond butter. Add the flour and mix them together. Set aside.
Creaming the butter and sugar. Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. Start spinning the paddle attachment to whip the butter a bit, then add the demerara sugar. Cream the butter and sugar until they are pale and fluffy. Turn off the stand mixer.
Building the cake batter. Whisk the eggs until they are beaten together. With the stand mixer running, dribble in the egg mixture a tablespoon at a time, letting the mixer run after each addition. Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally to ensure that everything is well combined. (Slater says here — if there is any sign of curdling, add a tablespoon or so of flour to the mix. I haven’t seen any curdling here yet.)
Finishing the batter. Pour in 1/3 of the almond-flour combination, running the mixer at low speed until the flour has disappeared entirely into the batter. Repeat this with another 1/3 of the dry ingredients, and then again. Dribble in the milk until it is fully incorporated. Add the apricots and strawberries. When everything is combined, turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Baking the cake. Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan. Smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake until the top is browned and the center has an athletic spring to it when you touch it with your finger. (You can also put a toothpick in the center to see if it comes out clean. This should take about 80 to 90 minutes.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen any sticky bits. Turn the cake onto a cooling rack, then flip it again. Eat when the cake is cooled to room temperature.
Feeds 8 to 12.
Feel like playing? I can already tell that I’ll be making this cake throughout the summer, but with whatever fruit is ripe that week. I can’t wait until blackberry season.
In the photograph of the cake in Slater’s book — and yes, I deliberately modeled mine after his — powdered sugar has been sifted on top. That works for me too, although I don’t think this cake needs anything more than itself.