This past week, for five days straight, we have had heavy rain. Finally the other day some blue, a lovely blue, began to show itself behind the thick cloud cover we'd gotten too used to. I'd gone to visit Eileen and Jim last weekend when the rain began in earnest, so our usual treks to gardens and trails were reduced to a fast few hours at Biltmore between the drops.
Instead, we spent the weekend on two of our favorite indoor activities: we did a puzzle (the one I brought, birdhouses in a mess of leaves sunny and shaded, drove us mad), and we baked.
Rainy days, it always seems to me, inspire filling the house with good aromas. I will be quick to note that not all baking does well in damp weather (this from experience), but mostly the effort yields soul-satisfying results.
What we worked on were treats for our upcoming Florida return in early June for our brother Tom's memorial. So much of the family will be together...a too-rare occasion...that we thought some family comfort would be welcome. Tom's brilliant wife Jean had already sent us the message that mourning clothes were prohibited ("No suits and ties!" she wrote), only bright, cheerful array, please. We were quick to agree. It reminded me of another funeral seventeen years ago, when the dress I most wanted to wear (and did) was cardinal red; black just didn't seem to reflect what my heart was pounding out, no matter how devastated.
Anyway, the first thing we thought to make was, of course (family will understand this qualifier), biscotti. Though over the years Aunt Sadie came to prefer Judy's Biscotti, a recipe she found in the newspaper, we relatively younger ones tend to start out with our grandmother's, the first one of three or four in the family cookbook. This time, though I'm often caught tinkering with it, I stuck to the traditional recipe, which the occasion seemed to call for.
But variations are always so tempting. Add grated lemon peel, add cranberries, add almonds, add walnuts, add chocolate...
To wit: a few days later, just returning home, I found an email from Alda Widmer, a new friend from Milan, which prompted a dinner together the next evening. Alda, a photographer, is planning a book that highlights her work with vegetables and fruits. When I met her earlier in the year, she and I had a linguistically challenging but entertaining chat about its possibilities, and I'd promised to help. I'd also promised that, next time she and her husband Franco Bocci came to the US to visit their son Paolo and his family, they would come to dinner. So I made good that promise first of all.
The rain still on its determined downfall, I decided to bake another batch of biscotti to welcome them. The thought had occurred to me, even while I was at work on those traditional ones, that there would be nothing wrong with a savory version. One could pretty easily cut the sugar and add herbs and/or spices and have something a little different. Though Eileen seemed lukewarm about the idea ("Let me know how they turn out," was her comment...to the tune of I probably wouldn't do it), I set out to experiment on my company. I'm sorry. Despite advice to the contrary, I do that, I'm afraid.
With all this sky-fall, you can imagine how the herbs in my garden are proliferating, so I was, as the Scots say, spoiled for choice. But as I also had some ginger in the cupboard, I reached for rosemary as a natural companion. I left the sugar mostly out, along with the vanilla, and sprinkled in a little powdered ginger to go with the crystallized dice. It worked, not only for me, but for my Italian guests and cousins who joined us. With scoops of lemon ice and blackberries, the biscotti shone.
But that was later the next day. While the biscotti cooled, I went on cooking as the ground outside soaked. I'd gone to the only market I could think of that might have the main ingredient of what I really wanted to cook for my Italian friends...a ragu of coniglio...but, alas, rabbit was not to be found. Six or seven years ago, there would surely have been a package in my freezer, but (also alas) no longer. So I picked up five lowly chicken breasts and made do with the same recipe. It wasn't bad. In fact, I was pretty proud of the whole menu, if I say so myself.
Antipasto of marinated artichokes, tuna, and pickled beets
Tomato-ginger relish, goat cheese, and ciabatta
Ragu of chicken over polenta
Orange and fennel salad over mache
with orange vinaigrette
Lemon ice with blackberries
In case you are thinking that guests, being guests, will, whatever they are served, politely compliment a host's dinner, I offer for proof the facts that, first of all, the conversation, in at least three languages, some unintended, was lively, and second, on the next day I fed the leftovers to my children and had no complaints whatsoever.
As far as I was concerned, the hit of the evening was what became of some spectacular heritage tomatoes--bright yellow, orange and burgundy--I'd grabbed on sale. Beautifully ripe, they were. So I thought more about that ginger and found online a recipe for tomato-ginger relish. I tweaked it only a little to produce my prize. (That recipe is now stuck in the family cookbook forever.) We could have made a meal just of the relish, the chunks of ciabatta I cut from the table basket, and a log of goat cheese, but I would never do that to dinner guests, at least not the first time a tavola.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of what I've cooked knows too well that I am also capable of making spectacular culinary blunders, so please be generous in forgiving me for bragging a little.
I do think, however, that our upcoming neighborhood Memorial Day picnic will garner another success from my kitchen. Look what I gathered at the Saturday Farmer's Market this morning. Can you imagine the possibilities?
And another thing: on this Memorial Day, don't forget to celebrate all the people who have given our lives their most valuable gifts...life, freedom, friendship, and a good table
to bring them together.