Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
- Harriet Van Horne
I didn’t know the seven courses of a seven-course meal until today. With just under 20 days left in Philadelphia, the good bye sayings have begun.
Part of that meant joining together with friends to enjoy a meal tonight.
Something about the breaking of bread with others assuages the worries of the day, and puts me in a very real sense of communion.
Even when I make popcorn for my students, it brings about a connectedness that can’t otherwise be achieved.
Tonight’s meal was more than popcorn.
As I said in my toast, tonight’s meal was an attempt to take care of some of those who have so readily taken care of me throughout my time in Philadelphia.
Of course, as an English major, each of the dishes for each of the seven courses was symbolic – as if I’m going to pick something just because it tastes good. Each dish was a lesson I’ve learned.
First Course: Jamie’s Goat Cheese Crostini
As a cook, I’ve a tenuous relationship with roasted red peppers. They can overpower a dish, they can throw off the balance of flavors, and they can go just right. This was about making a choice and hoping it would turn out. As the first course, it was also a reminder that every choice will be followed by many more which will help in the gaining of perspective.
Second Course: Gazpacho Casa Botin
The recipe for this course lives only one place that I know of – a May 2007 page of Men’s Health Best Life magazine. I tore it out when I read that the gazpacho was the same recipe Hemingway ate and wrote about. It was a tie to the words of the past and one of my literary hero’s. When my friend Heidi set out on a cross-country journey to be inspired and writer her novel, I made this soup as well as dishes authentic to other great American writers for her send-off meal. It serves not only as a connection to Hemingway, but of that other great meal of new beginnings.
Third Course: Sicilian Orange Salad
I didn’t choose this dish. My friend Michael did. That was its symbolism – the importance of looking to others for guidance and working to be a thoughtful friend. I’ve made this salad more times than I can remember. It’s a simple and beautiful combination of ingredients. I know everything that goes into the salad, and I’m always surprised by how much more flavor it produces than I expect. I suppose friendship is the same way.
Fourth Course: Spicy Grilled Salmon with Mango, Radish and Lime Salsa (I added blueberries)
I’m a vegetarian. I have been for about 15 years. Tonight, I cooked fish. I cooked it because the recipe sounded awesome and I liked the challenge of the salsa. Once the salsa was done, though, the lime overpowered all the other flavors. Rather than tossing the whole thing or serving something I wasn’t proud of, I grabbed a pint of blueberries, mushed them up and added them to the salsa. The result was a sweetness that complimented the fish well. It also furthered the symbolism of the course. There are, and should be exceptions. Whether it’s eating fish as a vegetarian or being willing to take a chance by modifying a recipe, nothing except stone is set in stone.
Fifth Course: Raspberry Honey and Black Tea Sorbet
If you look up the courses of a seven-course meal, you’ll probably notice two things. One, the sorbet course is fourth, not fifth. Two, there’s a sorbet course.
Now, I love sorbet, sherbet, ice cream and any other frozen treat that falls under that particular umbrella. Making it from scratch, though, worried me as I don’t own an ice cream meeker or have any interest in investing in one. So, I made sorbet from scratch sans machine. And it was wonderful.
It was even more wonderful as the fifth course and not the fourth. In the crazed energy of preparing all this food, I simply forgot.
So there were two symbols.
1) Beautiful, wonderful things can be made even when you know you don’t have the proper tools.
2) Despite the regimented order of things, sometime its best to change course.
Sixth Course: Crispy and Delicious Asparagus and Potato Tart
Filo dough and I have gone round and round. I’ve had the best of intentions for cooking with this tissue paper-thin pastry, but each time been bested by my own lack of patience. Attempt to unroll filo dough before it’s had a chance to thaw, you’ll break it. Wait too long to separate the sheets, you’ll rip it. Pull two sheets apart too quickly, you’ll rip it. In my cooking psyche, filo dough has a uniquely querulous nature, intent on thwarting any attempts I might make to ply it into tasty submission.
Tonight was different. I kept the dough thawing from the time it came home from the store until the time I needed it in the recipe. When I needed to unroll and separate the sheets, I took my time, paying the patience it needed. As one or two tears occurred, I chalked them up as Persian flaws. I could have chosen another recipe. History taught me filo dough would be more trouble than it was worth. Still, I wanted the challenge.
Seventh Course: Tiramisu Cupcakes
I didn’t make these. I selected the recipe and gave guidance where asked, but I spent no time baking these amazingly rich cupcakes. If seven courses were to be prepared by the time guests arrived, I needed to hand off responsibility for one of them to someone else. Michael made the cupcakes. It meant I needed to share a kitchen. It meant I needed to pay attention to what I was cooking and not what Michael was cooking.
The first batch wasn’t to Michael’s liking. A little light, the cupcakes stuck to the pan and ripped apart when they were removed. It’s the kind of thing you can fix with creative icing, but Michael wasn’t satisfied.
He made a second batch from scratch because he wanted to serve something he was proud of. They were amazing.
Aside from the possible exception of the filo dough, I learned no new lessons tonight. I did re-learn many lessons. Sometimes, it’s the re-learning that means the most.