To borrow a very little from Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are few things as lovely as a good dinner with good friends. (Single men and their fortunes notwithstanding.) Especially there are few things as lovely when it's Nathalie and Josh who are coming to dinner.
I've known Nathalie ever since we spent a few years sharing a brownstone floor-thru in Brooklyn. Like all roommates who become true friends, we came to know each other's histories and on-going dramas: families, first loves, divorces, disaster dates, heart-throbs and break-ups. We shared meals of cheap Chinese take-out and tossed back margaritas at our Mexican local. We did have many things in common; it was, however, the moment where she told me about being chased by a wild boar while foraging for mushrooms in the forest that caused me to realize our childhoods had been quite different.
I was lucky enough to live with Nathalie's heartstopping, other-worldly canvases for several years. She came with me to my parents for many a Thanksgiving as well as other celebrations; I went to France and spent glorious times at her family home in the Cevennes Mountains with her remarkably warm, forthright and large family, sitting over lovingly cooked lunches and dinners as bottle after bottle of sturdy red wine was opened.
Time passes, lives change, and of course neither of us live in that Brooklyn brownstone any more. We each have our mates, as well as work and family obligations that demand a fair amount of time. But we do love to get together, and the synergy is always good. Nathalie and her husband Josh are just as fond of good food and wine as we are; Josh (an amazing jazz musician) and G have much to talk about music-wise; and once we've all got a glass or two under our belts, our evenings generally start to devolve into the sort of ribaldry and silliness that lets you know you're truly among friends.
I wanted to make something really good when we invited them for dinner. For all the right reasons -- not to impress or flatter -- but simply to give pleasure. I know that Nathalie is always hoping for lamb when they come to dinner, and I'm always happy to oblige since it's a favorite of ours too. I thought about Rogan Josh or crisp herbed lamb chops, but settled on Gardiane, a stew from the Camargue which is variously listed as being made from beef, veal, lamb or the meat of bulls, wherever that might be found. I love the version from Mireille Johnston's lovely old book The Cuisine of the Sun, a forerunner to the explosion of French provincial cooking in this country. The late Ms. Johnston's Gardiane uses lamb, as well as copious amounts of garlic, some orange zest, and the one ingredient all recipes for this dish seem to agree upon -- olives. G graciously agreed to pick the olives out of his portion. He's always gracious about such things -- even about the extra dishes that come with having guests.
G and I had just popped out of our showers and become nominally respectable when the doorbell rang. Nathalie exclaimed over the good cooking smells, so I showed her what was in the big blue pot. "Oooph, La Gardiane, bien sur!" she exclaimed. "It's a great dish from the Camargue!" Sometimes I forget that in France people really do know their food. Drinks were poured, and we went into the living room for apps.
I kept appetizers easy -- more olives, crudites, G's beloved Manchego cheese (to make up for all those olives), some nice fennel-scented taralli biscuits, and my most favorite party trick of late: Nigella's Parma ham bundles, which consists of a small chunk of moist dried fig (I cut mine in quarters) smeared with fresh goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. A simple thing, and quite addictive -- I made them for my friend Katherine's party last fall, and people were impressed out of all proportion.
We moved on to La Gardiane, a fresh baguette, and a simple green salad: butter lettuce, baby romaine, arugula and avocado. Nathalie and I switched from the white wine to the red, and Josh and G finished their Glenlivets so they could partake as well. I really can't quote the conversation at this point, since what I remember of it began to get quite raucous. Suffice it to say that the lamb dish, which had been cooked gently with garlic and thyme, orange zest and olives, and included tiny carrots and little creamer potatoes that had simmered to tenderness in their jackets right in the sauce, was a success. The salad too was good, as salad always is after such things.
Little by little we made our way to dessert. Nathalie and I cleared plates to the kitchen. She looked fondly back over her shoulder as a shout of laughter came from the living room. "When we were in that Brooklyn apartment, we never thought to be here, now, like this..." she said, looking pleased.
I always think that unless you know for a fact that your guests don't have a sweet tooth, dessert is a real priority. You can always buy a lovely dessert for a dinner party, but there's nothing like creating something yourself. After all, you end with dessert, so that's where the evening's memory lingers. Because I couldn't quite fix on chocolate, vanilla, nut or fruit, I decided to make something that would encompass all those good flavors. I'd never made a panna cotta before, even though it's a dessert I love. Vanilla bean simplicity was what I wanted, surrounded by a lovely fruit compote. My citrus loves of the season, cara-cara and blood oranges, were in the starring role, garnished with fresh although out-of-season berries that I simply couldn't resist. The oranges were supremed in all their colorful glory, and their juices reduced with jasmine-perfumed thousand-flower honey and a splash of Grand Marnier. This was drizzled over the orange sections along with a dose of blood orange vinegar and some grated orange zest. Left to sit for a while, the orange sections were finally joined by their garnish of berries. Then each ramekin of vanilla-speckled panna cotta was upended into a ring of all that lovely fruit.
Fruit and sweet vanilla cream are almost perfect -- but they do need a little something to go with, as far as I'm concerned. I'd been inspired by Molly's post of chocolate madeleines, and wanted to try my hand at my own version. Mine ended up being quite different from hers, with resonances of the Pierre Hermé chocolate loaf cake I made a few weeks ago, rich with chocolate, almond paste and lots of crisp pistachios. Instead of using Molly's luscious chocolate glaze, I included a goodly amount of chopped dark chocolate inside. Our dear friends were suitably wowed, and especially pleased when they went home with a bag of madeleines for "laters".
So we ate and drank, and talked and laughed, as any gathering of friends are wont to do. And we made plans for further merrymaking: meals and movies and outings and adventures to come. Some time ago, N & J were left a family legacy of a tiny cottage in a town near Nathalie's family. It took quite a bit of doing to make it habitable, but Nathalie assures me that it's now ready for guests, and that our invitation is open. So perhaps sometime, although not anytime terribly soon, I'll post of other good dinners with these good friends from a little house in the Languedoc...