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What Would Alice Do? Eat Together.

March 23, 2009

If we can’t experience joy in the things we absolutely must do to live, such as eating, how can we find it in the optional activities that fill almost all our waking moments? Michael Pollen told us in the Omnivore’s Dilemma that one in five American meals are eaten in the car — that’s 60,550,000,000 whopping meals a year eaten in the car (assuming 90% of America’s population of 307,212,123 people eats three meals every day). Aside from the health consequences, this is a tragic number of missed opportunities. Missed opportunities for conversation, for sensual tastes and smells, for a complete and rich experience revolving around food, and for enhancing our lives.

For this installment of our investigation of Alice Waters’s “delicious revolution” tenants, I explored her maxim “Eat Together.” Unlike some of the other principles—for example, eat locally and sustainably—the correlation between action and social importance  was not immediately evident. Last week we put the manifesto to the test and experienced an overwhelming bounty: not just of food, but of friends.

Tuesday we met Michael and Tennesse at Lou, a cozy wine bar on Vine Street that serves delicious, seasonal small plates and cheeses in a menu interesting enough to inspire some attempted recreations at home. The approach is classic hidden-gem Los Angeles: enter an ugly strip mall across from a football-field-size supermarket, pass through darkened doors next to a fluorescent-lit Laundromat, and come into a welcoming low-light, long-tables, tree-wallpapered space. The wine presentation at Lou is smart, and almost all the menu selections are available in three sizes: taste, glass, or bottle. I usually order several tastes, thereby creating a customized wine flight that can be easily adjusted along the way. They also offer curated flights if you prefer to be surprised.

Wednesday night we convened with Food Club. Food Club consists of seven gastronomical freaks who rotate hosting a feast of epic proportions, and it epitomizes how food can enrich our lives. Through Food Club, we stretch out of our comfort zone to produce new edibles to delight our friends. We talk for hours, unhurried, enjoying each others’ company. And we give food the respect it deserves by completely and wholly tasting each dish placed in front of us, discussing the ingredients and preparation and striving to understand the creation in our mouths. (Xander and Danika hosted this week, with the menu living in a separate post just in case you need inspiration for your own dinner party.)

Thursday night we invited Krissy and Brendan to our house. There is a bonus gift in having friends who work in public radio: they are fantastic conversationalists. You’re guaranteed to talk about all those interesting topics that they fill their minds with each workday while the rest of us are busy scratching away at spreadsheets. For evidence, check out Krissy’s blog or Brendan’s podcast, the aptly named Dinner Party Download. We made butternut squash risotto, roasted asparagus, mixed greens with blood oranges and toasted pine nuts, and Nigella’s amazing pantry shelf chocolate cake. It was an impromptu affair, with no planning ahead and no recipes with the exception of the cake (see below).

Friday we R&R’ed just the two of us and had a Hanukah-pantry dinner. This is what we call those meals when you’re sure there is absolutely nothing to eat in the house, but when you scrounge through it all you are someone able to produce a full supper, just like the Hanukah lights kept burning for eight nights with enough oil for one. Eating like this helps keep the kitchen-creativity sharp, and helps reduce the throwout-food that is sometimes a wasteful byproduct of being so excited at the farmer’s market that you buy more than you can consume before it spoils.

Saturday we went with my parents to Cube, another neighborhood favorite. Formerly the takeout place Divine Pasta, Cube has evolved into a low-key, food-focused café and market with mostly Italian cuisine and wine and local/humane ingredients. They rotate their menu every week according to what’s fresh, and this week featured a lot of charred tomatoes. A few highlights from our meal: guiltily non-local Italian import burrata accompanied with rosemary focaccia topped with white fig puree; sweet pea and mascarpone tortelloni with a brown-butter sauce (not nearly as sweet as it sounds, truly divine); and shredded brussels sprout tops lightly cooked and dressed with lemon and pine nuts. We had no idea what a brussels sprout top was until we saw them the next day at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market: they are the little cabbage-like ball at the top of a brussels sprout stalk, and surprisingly delicious.

By creating a social experience that includes food, i.e. by eating together, we subtly shift the role of food in our lives: we bring it out of the realm of requirement and into the realm of fulfillment, out of the realm of animal and into the realm of human. My parents are the original foodies in my life and have definitely passed on the importance of food in bringing people together. My family, their families, and even most of our friends, collectively thrill to an evening spent in the kitchen and around the dinner table, savoring the pleasures of the mouth and of the heart, and the ways in which food can draw us close and remind us that we are fully, wholly, alive. And that, I believe, is why what Alice would have us do, is Eat Together.

For your next simple yet delicious gathering, Nigella Lawson’s pantry shelf chocolate cake:

½ cup unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into chunks
1 1/3 cups good jam*
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup self-rising cake flour
8-inch springform pan, buttered and floured

*Note: Nigella’s original recipe calls for marmalade. We’ve made it that way and it’s good, but we vastly prefer it with raspberry jam, seeds and all. It would work with any kind of jam/marmalade, etc. except for anything with fruit chunks. Depending on the sweetness of your jam you may need to use more or less sugar to taste.

Preheat the oven to 350-degrees.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom saucepan over low heat. Add the chocolate, removing from heat and stirring vigorously until completely melted. Add the marmalade, sugar, salt, eggs and stir until completely combined. Add the flour a bit at a time, stirring well, until completely combined. Pour into the prepared pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes. Cool in the pan for about 10 minutes than turn onto a rack to cool.

This cake is an excellent “vehicle” dessert – a vehicle for whipped cream, fresh fruit, or sifted confectioner’s sugar.

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