TRR photos by Jude Waterston

A late summer garden in Cochecton, NY makes an idyllic setting for an al fresco dining party.

Panic attack

In late August, a friend and his partner sent out invitations for a Labor Day fete on Sunday, September 2. They had thrown a lovely outdoor gala for a couple dozen people two years prior at which the main event had been, amazingly (and generously) grilled lobster tails. Their property in Cochecton is amazing; their fruit and flower gardens extraordinary. This time there would be 40 guests. I don’t even know 40 people, and so was mightily impressed at the task set before M. and J.

I emailed M. and asked if I could bring an hors d’oeuvre, “or is there anything else I can do?” I wrote. “I could really use some help in the kitchen Saturday, and I think we’d work well together,” he responded.

In a later email to me, M. mentioned a few of the dishes he would be preparing: both vegetarian and chicken enchiladas with salsa verde; macaroni and cheese (for the younger guests); an usual dish containing wilted Asian greens and Swiss chard topped with caramelized onions; peach cobbler; and an ethereal almond cake, served with lemon curd and whipped cream. Cups of gazpacho garnished with avocado and platters of sliced ripe tomatoes, creamy fresh mozzarella, and basil from the garden would serve as appetizers.

I arrived at 9 a.m. Saturday morning with a tote bag containing a bib-apron and a variety of sharpened knives, awaiting orders to chop, mince and dice copious amounts of vegetables, herbs and fruit. On an island not far from the stove were glass bowls, egg cartons and a sheet of paper. M said, “There’s a recipe for lemon curd. You have to double it, and I need two bowls each with four egg whites for meringue. The rest of the egg whites can go in another bowl, which we’ll do something with at some point.” He turned toward a cabinet to search for a bowl. I felt a tingling panic rising through my body. Lemon curd? I’ve never made lemon curd, I thought to myself. M. turned back to me. “Martha’s [Stewart, naturally] recipes are good, but she’s not specific. You need to use a double boiler, so I set you up with this,” he said, pointing to a large, shallow metal bowl sitting atop a pot of simmering water on the stove. “There you go now,” he urged, as though it was my first day of school. And I guess it was.

I was afraid I’d double some of the ingredients and forget to double others. Chit chat went out the window as I broke and separated whites and yolks from 16 eggs. Like a fool, instead of breaking each egg individually over a small bowl to ensure no yolk got into the whites, I broke each egg over one of the bowls of whites. Naturally, one yolk slipped out of its halved shell and plopped into the bowl. I quickly scooped it out, praying it wouldn’t break and hadn’t tainted the whites.

Finally, after a good deal of whisking over a fairly high flame, the curd came together and, incidentally, was delicious. I didn’t want M. to know I’d been so thrown for a loop over the prospect of making something I’d never tackled before, but inwardly I felt gratified.

Now came the vegetables for the gazpacho and an enormous amount of cilantro for the enchiladas. I went to work chopping and mincing, comfortable with my skills. Next J. and I worked together with bunch after bunch of Asian greens, separating the stems from the long leafy tops. M. stood a few feet from us, at the stove, sautéing the chopped stems, then cooking down the greens. Three hours passed quickly, and we had indeed gotten on very well in the kitchen, which is no small feat.

The following day, the party started at 2 p.m. My sister, Janet, had earlier in the day dipped big fat raspberries in silky dark chocolate to add to the dessert table, and we slipped that into the fridge and joined the guests who had already arrived on the back lawn. I had brought along my camera and took photos of those around me, while sipping a glass of chilled white wine. I had told M. and J. I would chronicle the party for them. Unfortunately, Janet’s allergies kicked in mightily right around the time the mozzarella, basil and tomatoes had been put out, and we headed home.

I emailed the fellas the photos I’d managed to take and asked if they were pooped, yet happy with the outcome. M. wrote back that he was pooped indeed and oh, by the way, in the craziness of serving 40 hungry people, the lemon curd never made it to the table.

2½ pounds ripe, most flavorful tomatoes, seeded and chopped

1 garlic clove, minced

1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 Kirby cucumbers, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 Italian frying pepper (or 1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper), cored, seeded and chopped

1 tablespoon Spanish sherry vinegar (or more to taste)

1/2 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

Large pinch of ground cumin

Salt to taste

Optional garnishes:

Cubed avocado

Finely diced cucumber and bell peppers

Slivered basil leaves or finely chopped cilantro

 

Working in two batches, place all ingredients except the olive oil and vinegar in a blender and puree for at least one minute, until smooth, slowly adding half of the olive oil to each batch. When both batches are finished, pour the gazpacho into a big bowl and add the vinegar. Check for seasoning, then transfer to a large pitcher and chill until very cold, at least six hours. Serve in small glasses or cups, garnished if desired.

 

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