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The Chicken, the Eggplant, and the Cod Walk into our Mouths

Take me Home!

I don’t remember what triggered the sudden urge to fly home to California after having spent the last seven years battling it out with life abroad. A few minutes later and a hell of a good deal on an -egads-direct! flight from Tel Aviv and I was on my way to what was to be a life changing experience. As that jet touched down into SFO airport, I felt a huge sense of relief. I was finally home, the place I belonged, where people knew me well and I didn’t need to haggle for toothpaste and yell to get a new checkbook. After a year of the most stringent lockdown in the world, this escape was most welcome.

With being home came seeing old friends, and reconnecting with them was a crucial part of a successful trip. I’d recently reconnected with Tom, someone I’ve known for eighteen years, and was thrilled at the idea of having my old friend back. Much banter and reminiscing later and we were once again inseparable. Yet another pleasant afternoon spent gardening and he asked if I would like us to host a dinner party together. We had spent a fantastic evening with the woman who was my best friend during the golden age of the early twenties and cared to repeat the experience. Her and her recent fiancé were thus invited, and the planning thus began.

I’ve hosted a lot of dinner parties in my apartment in Tel Aviv and was no stranger to the ins and outs of ensuring a flawless evening. But this somehow proved to be different. I would be cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen without my six cutting boards and three Japanese chef knives, not to mention the fact that the table was different and the crockery didn’t match…a sense of panic began to kick in. Then I remembered a crucial detail: Kelsey and I lived together while I was still quite green in the kitchen, she had endured my experiments and put up with the poached egg topping everything phase. Whatever I would prepare for that Saturday’s meal would surely be better than that.

This was all fine and well, but how to organize myself? There was plenty of time to cook but Tom’s kitchen was small and minimalist. We had worked in unison to throw dinner together a couple of times, but this was no sautéed leeks and slow poached shrimp. With one admittedly excellent paring knife and two cutting boards that I couldn’t find until two hours into cooking, I knew I needed to set aside my prejudices and luxuries. People managed greater feats with less, and so I cracked on knowing that this was to be one of the most challenging cooks I’d partaken in in quite some time.

Cook to Impress?

So I pondered (ok agonized) as to what I would serve, and what made the most sense was to honor my current love for Israeli cuisine. “Za’atar and olive oil here we come!”, I thought enthusiastically. Chicken had become my go-to protein source since there is an upsettingly small variety of meat at the local butcher, and a whole chicken always impressed. A generous rub and crispy skin would make a gorgeous centerpiece, so that was sorted. But what to serve alongside it? The obvious choice was eggplant, that special vegetable so favored by the Levantine kitchen. Whole roasted eggplant was a bit much, but babaganoush would do beautifully. Next up-the fish course. I’d purchased some rock cod to ceviche and then realized that the freshness level just wasn’t up to par. Fresh fish is something I take for granted as my fishmonger often has live fish ready to be bashed on the head in front of the display of luscious salmon steaks. Still, a bright and citrusy fish dish made perfect sense as an accompaniment to the chicken and eggplant, so the classic ceviche turned into a poached fish salad.

I was most excited about my fish dish, it was to be something new and unique, a take on Peruvian food that had never been seen before, a semi-ceviche if you will. So I built an aromatic broth with lots of lemon juice and peel, some fancy salt, peppercorns, smashed garlic cloves, and chili flakes. One swift boil later and the fish went in to poach for a few minutes. It needed to be cooked medium, still shiny on the inside and beautifully flaky on the outside. This cooking temperature didn’t fly well with Tom, which nearly caused an argument. When the fish had cooled down, I flaked it up and drowned in in Meyer lemon juice and olive oil to finish cooking in the fridge. One down, two to go.

It was now time to tackle the eggplant. Under normal circumstances I would have blackened it on my gas burners, but trying this in this context was laughable. So, sighing audibly, I violently stabbed the two gorgeous eggplants with a fork and stuck them in a piping hot oven where they would hang out for an hour. In the meantime I freed the chicken (organic, free range, brined, blessed by the gods) and was amused at the organs neatly packaged in plastic. What a luxury! Chickens in Israel still contain offal and it takes a healthy dose of flirting with the butcher to purchase a cleaned one. So I stuffed the chicken with a lemon and some thyme, laughing like a child at the idea of having my hands up a bird’s butt. This proved to be a little tricky as the kitchen didn’t have a sink and I was going back and forth to the bathroom to avoid giving us all salmonella. Still, the chicken’s inners were coming together beautifully, and it was just a question of slathering it with my secret weapon: za’atar brought back from my local market in Israel. Typically I also coat the skin with butter and stuff half a pound of the stuff under the skin, but this was not the time for showing off nor clogging arteries. This was to be a simple, humble meal prepared with the utmost care.

Positive Affirmations

6:30 rolled around and the feeling of anticipation of our guests being on the way came washing over me. “Everything is great”, I thought. My food is sexy, the table looks great, Tom had worked extra hard to ensure the outdoor dining area was tidy and intentional, all was well. Finally there was time to muse about Kelsey and I’s relationship in the past, about the experiences we’d lived, the apartment we’d shared, the people we’d brought into our heavily intertwined lives. We’d met in community college during a painfully dull statistics class and had slowly built a close friendship. As time went on we grew to know each other a little too well, predicting behaviors and sharing friends, and briefly a lover. I was the better behaved of the two and watched her somewhat helplessly fall into a whirlwind of men and drugs. She would come out of these experiences stronger than ever before, able to withstand whatever life had brought to her and smack it across the face with a swish of her mermaid hair. Still, we loved each other unconditionally, she was in fact the sister I never had. Unfortunately, my time away had spread us apart. We would visit whenever I would come back to California, but that closeness and trust that so carefully punctuated our twenties had clearly come and gone. These visits all felt quite courteous and pleasant and we always had a good time, but there was often an element of a forced encounter. As we would be taken out of our usual visiting context, this dinner would be a different experience.

Then there was Ryan, her now fiancé. As previously mentioned, Kelsey had had a string of boyfriends and lovers over the years, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this fellow who had taken her heart. He turned out to be a pleasant and friendly enough person, and their bond was quite clearly quite strong.

Musing having happened and the ever-present Jewish guilt having wasted enough time, I puttered down to the gorgeous outdoor space that would serve as the setting for the evening’s activities. The glorified shed that Tom and I would so often hang out in was painted rust red, which brought about a lovely warmth. The mismatched crockery and mugs substituting water glasses were charming, and Tom was especially proud of his matching silverware. The table was split in two by a thick midnight blue runner and well-worn candles sat squatly on the walls. Lovingly grown ferns spaced around a brick-lined bathtub filled the remainder of the space, with unique lighting strategies ensuring a delicate glow. We’d even picked some hand grown poppies, their umbrella shaped petals brought the space together in the most graceful of manners.

To add to the charm of the surroundings, Kelsey had picked up some wonderful produce at her local market, among which was a pair of succulent heirloom tomatoes. Those not being a thing in Israel, they are something that I dearly miss. So when that royal purple tomato came out of the wrinkled paper bag, I honestly jumped for joy. She then produced cucumbers which looked huge compared to the Persian variety that so often graces my table. They honestly tasted a little subpar, perhaps a bit watery and the skin was possibly waxed. The last thing to emerge from her bag was a container of vegan cheese. Now as a cheese lover, the fact that someone would call something not made from dairy cheese was offensive at best. But being quite polite, I tried it. Mind blown. Though it didn’t taste like cheese exactly, the texture was like that of a very good quality cream cheese worthy of any self-respecting bagel. What a fabulous discovery!

Bon Appetit

With all that said and done it was time to move the party to the dining table and dig in to that food I’d spent the last five hours preparing. A few bouts of tinkling laughter had calmed my nerves and I remembered just how fantastic food can taste. A minor snafu hit as we seated ourselves by gender. Something I never properly learned how to do is butchery, so breaking down the chicken was to pose a problem. Kelsey promptly volunteered and did an impressive job portioning out the bird. She ceremoniously served everyone unhealthily large portions and the rest of the dishes went around the table. There were a few minutes of silence during which everyone ate heartily, but with appetites somewhat satiated the conversation flowed. Kelsey and I spent time going over my current relationship issues while Tom and Ryan talked gardening. As the evening went on we started to reminisce about our past antics and broke out social media to look at old photos. This was a bittersweet experience as we saw how much we had both aged. Then again, realizing this now, we were both exceptionally attractive in our twenties and still look quite good today.

Now to answer the burning question: how was the food. I would say overall stunning, though the chicken might have benefitted from seven less minutes in the oven. But because I was in a great mood, I rated the meal a 9.5 out of ten. This was extravagant praise coming out of my mouth as I am my toughest critic and will regularly pick apart food no matter who prepares it.

The evening went on and Kelsey and Ryan waddled home while Tom and I started tidying up the kitchen and dining area. As we took turns scrubbing pots and pans I realized that I wanted this to be my next step, to create unforgettable dining experiences for people to come together. And so it begins.

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