What We Ate

In no time after my arrival at Mary’s house, her dining room table is thrown into chaos: books, projects, magazines, maps, electronics, and beach necessities gather there, ready for any direction we might take. Receipts pile up and rows of quarters are neatly arranged, ready for the parking meters. Because we both love good food, we spend a fair amount of time talking about what we’ll eat next. This way we can plan our daily excursions with one eye on sources of foodstuffs.

With the dining room given over to the flotsam and jetsam of our various activities, we eat out on the sunporch, just as Mary and her sister and their parents did when she was growing up. I don’t know how four people managed in that small space alongside Ruth’s prize-winning African Violets, but Mary assures me they did fine. I know we do. These days pleated paper shades billow where plant shelves once were hung along the windows.

Mary and I tend to rise early and drink our coffee in different rooms. Old friends know their own rhythms, and we understand that an hour or two of reading and contemplation fuel us for all the daytime things. I take my coffee to the sunporch, push open a few windows, and listen to the outside world waking up: people driving out the alley to go to work; trucks and buses heading up the hill; on milky mornings the fog horn echoing up from the harbor. It’s as good a place as any to wake up.

One morning we drove over to the Torrance Farmers’ Market to see what would appeal, figuring we’d design our menus from there. It’s hard to go wrong with a southern California farmers’ market. Every fruit and vegetable I could think of was represented, and all of them looked fantastic.

Two really fun things about SoCal farmers’ markets: one, they abound with free samples of everything. Two, they smell like fruit. My stone-fruit cravings were stirred up: I wanted peaches, nectarines, and plums.

Naturally, a SoCal farmers’ market is going to devote some space to plants and flowers. It’s never easy to avoid such temptations, but this year we resolved to work with the plants already present in Mary’s landscape; to bring flowers to her house is definitely a “coals to Newcastle” enterprise. So we merely admired.

Back at the house, a bowl of lusciousness for the sunroom table:

Almost every night, we celebrated salad. Mary is an outstanding and imaginative cook, and she makes my favorite salads in the world. This year, inspired by a black iron griddle she’d acquired, I rubbed slices of rustic bread with raw garlic, squiggled them with olive oil, and toasted them on the stove. Mary had picked up a “Creamy Toscano” cheese at Trader Joe’s, thinking to extend the pleasures of Italy for me. Thin slices of that cheddar-parmesan tasting cheese on the grilled bread enhanced our nightly salads and left us groaning with pleasure.

However did we get along with untoasted bread?

I’m counting down the days until Trader Joe’s opens here in Austin (they are telling us September 20th). As soon as I can find a parking place, I’m gonna run in there and get me some of that Creamy Toscano. I may be too unruly to ever believe a salad is a meal, but toast + cheese + salad actually makes sense to me.

One night I made Marcella Hazan’s classic tomato and onion sauce, and as usual I added a pound of spinach to the pasta and four ounces of mascarpone to the sauce. Cannot recommend: it would be like suggesting you try crack just this once. Which is basically impossible, as the leftovers make the best mac-and-cheese lunch ever. And since it has spinach, it must be good for you.

We were left with half a container of yummy soft mascarpone. The next night I took that leftover cheese and whisked in some sugar, lemon zest and a few drops of lemon juice, and made parfaits with that and the fruit salad we’d put together after the farmers’ market. Since that combination was delicious, a subsequent breakfast simply just had to be toasts, spread with sweetened lemony mascarpone and topped with fruit:

Yup. Uh-Huh.

We don’t eat fancy at Mary’s, although we certainly could. She is always on the lookout for recipes and, since she finds just about every food on the planet delicious, she creates some amazing dishes. (I may have told you this before, but a friend once complained about Mary, “She never buys food! She just buys ingredients!”)

We have our traditions, though. We need to have lunch at Martha’s in Hermosa Beach at least twice; we need to eat many salads; we get one pizza from Sorrento’s and have dinner once or twice in downtown San Pedro. Since I only had a week to work with this year, we didn’t have time to indulge in traditions like barley and cabbage with Savory Sauce from The Spot. Nor did we venture into the wayback machine to eat avocado egg rolls at The Cheesecake Factory.

I did, however, have the opportunity to remind myself to put TJ’s chocolate ice cream on the shopping list for my first visit (yeah, I am so likely to forget that!).

I also learned about cooking in enamel-clad cast iron – what can I say? “Better late than never?” – and decided I must emulate Mary in taking up this phenomenon. I had always avoided Le Creuset because I figured it I can’t lift the covered Dutch French oven empty, how would I ever pull it out of the oven full?

Breathtakingly slow on the uptake, I realized at last that a smaller pot would suit our needs perfectly. If Mary could use her large one to make everything from rice to oatmeal, surely Floyd and I could follow suit. As soon as I reached home I ordered one, and I’ve used it a dozen times already.

Mary and I have done a great deal of cooking together over the years, in her kitchen and mine. Although I love her kitchen and the deliciousness it pours forth, I must say my kitchen has certain advantages. Mary may have the fastest, hottest electric stove I’ve ever encountered, but I get to cook with gas. And then there are some differences in cleaning up.
But if only I could convince Floyd to pull up all his Texas roots and pack up Travis to head for the west coast, I always know where I would rather be, kitchen conveniences or no.

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