holiday gift guide 2020

From a distance

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How do we narrow the gap and bring people closer when, for various reasons, we are distanced from them? Just as the pandemic has forcibly detached us from each other, there have been other times in my life when I had to make an extra effort to draw others near. For 10 years, I worked in a small neighborhood shop selling freshly made pasta, homemade sauces, appetizers and entrees for take-out, as well as imported Italian products. The Italian owners represented three generations, and the entire kitchen staff, who prepared their specialties, was Hispanic. I was the odd man out, working at the front of the store in sales, often feeling like an island unto myself, as I was neither family nor among compadres.

Food has always been my means of attempting, if unconsciously, to draw folks in. I brought in dishes to share with the staff and owners, but the matriarch was a hard one to win over, seeing my offerings as a challenge to her sovereignty in the kitchen. After a while, it wasn’t seen as competition, and the workers (from the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela) particularly loved when I arrived with my take on a dish of Spanish or Latin descent. Even “the mother,” as I referred to her, accepted my offerings and praised me.

Every Christmas, my sister, Janet, and I spent days baking an assortment of unusual and visually inviting cookies: coconut macaroons with grated orange zest dipped in dark chocolate, shortbread sandwich cookies filled with apricot or berry preserves and drizzled with that same intense bittersweet chocolate, crisp-edged, chewy spiced cookies in which were hidden tiny bits of crystallized ginger. I packed my Christmas treats in individual containers, placed them in holiday shopping bags, each with a name tag and handwritten note in the language of the recipient, and brought them round to co-worker on the morning of Christmas Eve. It was my way of trying to bridge the cultural gap between me and those I worked with. The distance between us narrowed over time.

Upstate at our house, our tradition of baking for the holidays includes a box of homemade cookies placed in our mailbox for Kathy, who has delivered our mail for years. A few days later, along with the magazines and letters, we find a handwritten note thanking us for the confections. Other friends and neighbors receive gifts of spiced nuts, tea cakes, or assorted cookies.

And now, to the present: We have spent the past seven months trying to maintain relations with family and friends while the world caved in and crumbled around us. Before the summer arrived, we were ensconced in our own world, reaching out by phone or email in an attempt to remain connected. Once again, food played a part in my trying to remain in touch if at arms-length. If I had made too much of some dish and had leftovers, we would jump in the car and drive it around the corner to deliver it, warm, to our neighbors. Sometimes, I would simply prepare another whole portion of whatever I was cooking, say a savory vegetable bread pudding, called a strata, in its own casserole dish which we would drop off at our friend’s place.

I was thrilled when the weather cleared, the sun came out and the temperatures rose. Though we were forced to be ever-mindful each time we got together to socialize with anyone, moving furniture about on our front or back porch, and supplying myriad serving utensils for each wedge of cheese or bowl or dip, it felt so great—so right—to be with people again. Though we couldn’t sit near each other or embrace at the beginning or the close of our time together, something heavy and imposing was momentarily lifted.

Recently, on what we supposed might be one of the last days we’d be free to eat al fresco, a friend stopped by the house while Janet and I were having lunch on the front porch. We were savoring the early autumn sun above us and digging into broiled swordfish steaks topped with a chunky tomato (rosemary flecked) compote served on buttered orzo pasta and a creamy gratin of Tuscan kale dusted with crunchy, sauteed breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Our friend walked up the stairs leading to where we sat and commented on our meal. “Do you like swordfish?” I asked. “I love it!” he responded. I fixed him a leftover chunk, complete with orzo and a spoonful of gratin. To my surprise, he requested a small amount of wine, eyeing my glass of Cabernet. “It just looks right with this gourmet meal,” he said in response to my raised eyebrows. He ate with gusto as we discussed the state of the world and more mundane subjects, as well. I got great satisfaction drawing my friend near that day. I know that once again, as winter approaches, we will have to find ways to keep those we care about close, from a distance.

Swordfish (or halibut) fillets broiled with rosemary tomato compote

Serves 2

This dish is nice served with buttered orzo pasta and sautéed kale or Swiss chard.

2 8-ounce swordfish steaks
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 shallots, minced
1.5 teaspoons tiny capers in salt, rinsed and drained
1-14.5 ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (or tarragon, or a combo) leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or snipped chives (for garnish)

Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil with the lemon juice, salt and pepper. Brush the mixture on the swordfish and marinate for one hour at room temperature.

Preheat broiler to high. Meanwhile, sauté the shallots in the remaining tablespoon of oil and the tablespoon of butter over low heat. Add the tomatoes, sugar and rosemary and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove the swordfish from the marinade and broil 5–6 minutes, turn and broil for about 3 minutes longer. Meanwhile, pour the marinade into the tomato mixture, add the capers and continue cooking for about 3 minutes until well-combined. Cover sauce and keep warm.

When the swordfish steaks are just cooked through, remove them to a platter. Top them with the warm tomato compote, garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

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