Thursday, September 01, 2011

Dinner Parties and Lentils

Oh, M.F.K. Fisher. How right you were when you wrote that "sharing food with another human being is an intimate act, which should not be indulged in lightly."

Eating is intimate -- very intimate. But so often we make it public. We sit at communal tables or against large windows where the people outside can walk by and wonder exactly what's on our plate, and if it tastes as good as it looks. 

Occasionally at a restaurant you're seated so close to strangers that you can't help but eavesdrop. Only rarely is the conversation very exciting, but it is thrilling to hear what strangers have to say about their new shoes, the fights they have with their mother, or how they never really learned to like beets.

Then there's the dinner party. The true intimate act; the one that should not be indulged in lightly. The other day I heard someone say that the dinner party has gone out of fashion -- that thanks to the fervor over food, it's widely believed that you simply can't have a "special" dining experience in someone's home.

I shake my head with wild disagreement. I believe there's nothing more intimate, nothing friendlier, sexier, or more loving than inviting people into your home and cooking for them. Sure, there's an element of trouble (must clean bathroom, pick clothes up off floor, vacuum) and expense (flowers for the table, a lovely bottle of wine, and oh my -- how much was that bundle of herbs?) but lingering over a dinner at home with friends old or new is one of life's great pleasures.

When a dinner party is good, it's good. And by good I mean clean plates, multiple wine glasses, empty bottles of wine, laughter, music, droopy eyes, missed bedtimes, and forgotten worries.

I'm talking about the kind of evenings where you want to linger, where no one wants to say goodbye, where you wish -- if only for a moment -- that your dinner party could turn into a sleep-over just so you could wake up and do it again over coffee and eggs and piles of toast. Those are the kind of parties I want to have all the time.

I had one the other night, and it was good, so good. There was champagne, and deep red dahlias, and these funny little olives that managed to be dried and wrinkly and beautiful and delicious all at the same time. There was whole-wheat walnut bread from Acme Bakery which, just like the olives, seemed to be both the most ordinary and revelatory thing.

There was pork dressed in fresh herbs and red wine from the Jura, and fresh peach-strawberry crisp with a healthy plop of vanilla ice cream.

Oh, and there was lentil salad, the recipe found in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. In classic Chez Panisse fashion, there was nothing revolutionary about these lentils, but man-oh-man were they good.

Dinner parties and lentils. Who'd have thought they'd have similar alchemy but they do. Both begin with a very simple equation, but depending on ingredients, flavors, and how everything adds up, they can become magical.

Lentil Salad a la Chez Panisse
Sort and rinse 1 cup lentils (French green or beluga are best)
Cover with water by three inches and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and cook until tender all the way through (adding more water if needed), about 30 minutes. Drain and reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking lentils. Toss the lentils with:
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar [essential! and pleas do this while the lentils are warm]
Salt & fresh ground pepper
Let sit for 5 minutes. Taste and add more salt and vinegar if needed. Add:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely diced shallots or 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Stir to combine. If the lentils seem dry and are hard to stir, moisten them with a bit of the reserved cooking liquid.

Add to the salad as you like from here. I toss in a cup of baby tomatoes sliced into halves, a zucchini that I sliced thin and pan fried just a bit to soften it up, and handfuls of crumbled goat cheese. Cucumber would be nice, so would yellow or red pepper.


Megan Taylor said...

Thank you for posting this recipe! I haven't been able to stop thinking about it...along with everything else that shined and sparkled at your dinner party. I agree: I didn't want it to end. Hope we do it again, soon. Your lovely hosting was an inspiration, xoxo

Sunday Taylor said...

What an inspiring post! You really captured the essence of cooking for others and giving a dinner party. I felt so happy after I read what you wrote. Thank you for shining a light on the beautiful creative act of giving a dinner party for friends. Your description of a dinner party was a beautiful piece of writing.