`A Memorable Feast - Olive Oil Times

A Memorable Feast

Feb. 21, 2011
Joelle Laffitte

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Every now and then, I must con­fess that, like most women, I like to be pam­pered. I enjoy a night out, and all that comes with it: the thrill of a new restau­rant with a renowned chef, the ease of not hav­ing to cook a meal, or most impor­tantly, not hav­ing any dishes to clean.

There are all the tra­di­tional occa­sions where it is per­fectly expected that my hus­band should take me out, espe­cially on my birth­day, our wed­ding anniver­sary, and of course St. Valentine’s Day. Dutifully, we dress in our finest and head into town, and most of the time we have a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence and an over­all impres­sion that we’ve enjoyed our meal.

Unfortunately, we can never remem­ber what we actu­ally eat on these occa­sions. And while I know that peo­ple don’t go out to din­ner exclu­sively for the food, the food is cer­tainly an impor­tant ele­ment, and it would be nice to remem­ber it. But we never do. We remem­ber the nice host­ess, the nicely appointed address and the ambi­ence, or the walk to the train. In fact, we have both come to the real­iza­tion that the only meals we actu­ally do remem­ber eat­ing have all been made at home.

There was a per­fectly rosy pink lamb roast on my 31st birth­day, and blue cheese crusted steaks for his 29th. A beau­ti­ful duck breast in a fig sauce marked our fifth anniver­sary, and then there was that not quite so suc­cess­ful corn­meal-fried shrimp he attempted for our first Valentine din­ner together (the not-so-suc­cess­ful ele­ment result­ing from the con­fu­sion of corn­meal” with grits”…a clas­sic mis­take). But the expen­sive restau­rants in Manhattan, the Michelin guided fare of Paris? Well, they’re not so finely engrained in our mem­o­ries.

My the­ory for this is that when you shop for your own food, the act of han­dling the raw ingre­di­ents forms a con­nec­tion, as your sen­sory plea­sures are acti­vated through sight, touch, and smell (one of the rea­sons I don’t under­stand the con­cept of salad in a bag.) There’s noth­ing bet­ter to stim­u­late your appetite and love for cook­ing than choos­ing your own fresh greens, or pick­ing the most impec­ca­ble apple, or the fish with the most lumi­nous skin. Then, in han­dling that food as you pre­pare it for eat­ing, there is a sec­ond con­nec­tion formed between you and what you will be eat­ing as you wash and chop and stir. In the end, you’ve spent qual­ity time with your din­ner. And isn’t a bit of qual­ity time what we all really want?

So this year, when St. Valentine’s Day rolled around, we decided to stay home, for­get about the Michelin book and let our senses guide us instead. By cre­at­ing a menu our­selves, we were free to indulge in any com­bi­na­tion we fan­cied, and what we agreed upon first and fore­most is that one should never have to choose between oys­ters and coquilles St Jacques as a first course…so we made both. I had spot­ted some beau­ti­ful coquilles at the mar­ket, and because we had never opened them on our own, I was rewarded by wit­ness­ing my hus­band scream at a live shell­fish. They can, appar­ently, quite sud­denly clamp down, and I must admit that, for a mol­lusk, they can be a lit­tle intim­i­dat­ing.

But their fresh­ness was unpar­al­leled, and if I could rec­om­mend only one enter­tain­ing pre-din­ner activ­ity, shuck­ing a dozen coquilles St. Jacques would be it. We even­tu­ally mas­tered the skill of scal­lop extrac­tion, scrubbed the shells, and gave them a quick ver­mouth bath. Baked in the Breton style under but­ter and gar­licky bread­crumbs, they were much more appeal­ing than when alive and feisty.

The steaks were rare and suc­cu­lent, and unlike restau­rant din­ing, we weren’t con­cerned about their safety or ori­gin because we bought them our­selves, fresh and cer­ti­fied and bear­ing the num­ber of the man who raised them. I mixed my own salad greens, com­bin­ing a win­ter mélange of beet shoots, mache, and frisee, and for the cheese course, we didn’t bother with an assort­ment but just sliced into a sin­gle large wedge of what we know we like best. In lieu of dessert we skipped the sweets and had another bot­tle of wine, which is some­thing they never offer as a sub­sti­tu­tion on restau­rant menus, though prob­a­bly for good rea­son.

True, we had dishes to clean after­wards, and not every­thing went smoothly. We broke a crys­tal glass, (one we got in Venice on a spe­cial night out) and man­gled one of the scal­lops. Trying out an indoor grill, we did set off the smoke detec­tor a cou­ple of times. It’s also true that we cook every night, which may sug­gest that this night will fade into all the oth­ers. But I pre­fer to believe it was, and will remain, a mem­o­rable feast.

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