A couple weekends ago I was invited to cook dinner for some friends using ingredients from the farmers’ market. Eric is a med student at Columbia and lives in a beautiful apartment overlooking the Hudson in Washington Heights. We invited our three friends, Rex, Joe, and Jacob, to a meal that we would prepare together from produce we had bought that day , inspired by the bounty of the summer season. All five of us are alumni of the Alley Cats, and it turns out we represent five consecutive generations of Alley Cat classes. From oldest to youngest, Eric, Rex, Joe, Jacob, and me, though we all agreed that Jacob is the true baby of the group. Hearts, Jacob.
Eric and I met in the early afternoon at the Union Square Farmer’s market. It was incredibly overwhelming for me, the sheer number of vendors, bins of beautiful produce, and people doing their shopping. We managed to navigate the throng and made it out with our lives and bulging grocery bags more or less intact, and headed to the subway to take the L to the express A back up to 168th street.
When we got back to Eric’s apartment, we took a moment to admire the panoramic views of the Hudson and New Jersey across the river and rehydrate before setting to work in the kitchen. The menu for the night:
Tomato tartines with ricotta, roasted heirloom tomatoes, oregano blossoms
Eggplant rollatini stuffed with whipped goat’s cheese, honey, spices
Avocado squash carpaccio with radishes, lemon, purple basil
Wheat berry salad with cucumbers, corn, tomatillos, herbs
Summer squash ribbons with poached egg, parmigiano-reggiano, Hawai’ian red lava salt
Roasted peaches with lemon verbena, red currants, husk cherries
There were some successes and some things to work on, as with any big cooking project.
The tartines were definitely a hit. Joe couldn’t stop eating them, and it made me really happy to watch. We got this beautiful rustic loaf from market, and a combination of small cherry, sungold, and plum tomatoes, along with a HUGE two-pound red and yellow striped behemoth that epitomised summer bounty. I would have loved to get my hands on some sheep’s milk ricotta, inspired by a tomato tartine I had at Vandaag, but by the time we went to market they were already sold out. It has this wonderful lactic gaminess that pairs surprisingly and deliciously with the sweet, acidic tomatoes. But honestly, cow’s milk ricotta was totally wonderful too.
The eggplant rollatini also turned out well, almost exactly as I’d envisioned them. We roasted long strips of eggplant till they were soft and flavourful with crispy edges, and filled them with goat’s cheese whipped with cardamom, nutmeg, and coriander, and a burst of honey, rolling them into little sweet-savoury surprises. Decadent enough for dessert, for sure.
The carpaccio was inspired by something C made this summer. He sliced avocado squash thinly with the mandoline, and seasoned it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. It has this unique nuttiness and an almost fatty taste on the tongue, reminiscent of avocado. I paired it with radish for some spiciness, lemon to brighten, and purple basil for some herbaceous depth and aroma. It was delicious and unexpected, though I would have tried to make the presentation more beautiful and elegant.
The wheat berry salad was filling and satisfying, with a nice tart-sweet combination from the tomatillo and corn. If I were to do it again I would buy more vegetables – it would have been nice to have more of the vegetable flavours and textures for each bite of salad, because they are the stars of the show.
The summer squash dish I think was the weakest. It was fine but not what I was envisioning. I believe I blanched the squash for too long and did not drain it enough, so it got a little morose and bland. Next time, I would have blanched it only very quickly, for perhaps thirty or forty seconds, then drained it very well, dried it, and dressed it with some sort of herb pesto. Then topped it with the poached egg (I also undercooked some of the eggs), generously grated parmigiano, and sprinkled with the Hawai’ian red lava salt. It would have had more flavour, more colour, and been more robust – more what I was going for.
Dessert, though, made for a more satisfying end to the meal. We wanted to keep it simple and highlight the diverse flavours of summer that are often overlooked. We roasted the peaches lightly until soft yet still toothsome, and tossed them with a chiffonade of lemon verbena to temper the succulence with citrusy perfume. We also put out a bowl of ruby-red currants and, one of my most favourite things ever, husk cherries. They are in the nightshade family, like tomatoes, golden yellow and encased in little tan husks. Part of the pleasure is de-husking them yourself. They are intensely sweet; they truly are one of nature’s most pleasurable candies. I also love them because they taste slightly different to every person – I’ve heard people describe them as tasting like pineapple, hazelnut, toasted cashew, soursop, jackfruit, mango, guava, and host of things. To me they taste like poundcake with a slight tropical fruit edge and a hint of nuttiness. Nonetheless, they are universally delicious.
It was a wonderful night, the best part of which was catching up with each other and enjoying good company. I love food, but on occasions like this I like what it facilitates even more, the flourishing of friendships, humour, old connections, new discoveries, and the making of a night to remember.