Food for Thought

I’m sure even Marie-Antoinette would have shown greater sensitivity than to write about food and wine at this present juncture in time. The zeitgeist is definitely apocalyptic, with multiple horsemen riding steeds named Ukraine, Covid, Taiwan, Monkey-pox, Environmental Catastrophe and the unfortunately christened Loss-of-Blue-Collar-Work. Yet whilst maudlin-sensitivity is so voguish nowadays, its very ubiquity actually deprives it of any real force or sincerity. So, shorn of any decency, and in the true spirit of Emperor Nero, we can shamelessly share our experiences at the best, most obscenely expensive, most Instagramable locations, running up bills comparable to Hunter Biden’s monthly porn subscriptions.

If it’s not maudlin-sensitivity, or insincerity, then the leitmotif of our age must be the cult of the expert, where wannabe-Rhadamanthus’ dissect and pontificate on every aspect of our lives. In such as sense, then of course #metoo am an expert. I’ll pick food.

Actually, I’ve spent my entire adult life in gastronomy, had two stars from the Michelin guide at the age of twenty-nine, owned restaurants on three continents, and am fortunate enough now to travel three months of the year collecting furniture for my girlfriends antiques store. During this time, we visit scores of eateries, markets, friends houses, anywhere where we can do more than find sustenance.

More so, I genuinely believe -as the French say-  that being ‘a table’ (at the table) is one of the last civilizing acts we can perform. There is a whole etiquette and codes of behaviour that theoretically show us at our very best. Everything from dressing-up, making the effort to put on our party frocks, to assuming a correct posture rather than slouching or laying at the level of the plate, to mastering the use, like our ancestors with stone tools, of the right cutlery. Crisp linen and a few fine wine glasses seem a better, more morally acceptable, more aesthetically pleasing investment than Kanye’s Nike Air Yeezys. Conversation will have to be made, as even being funny, or interesting is an act of generosity, whilst using mobile phones at the table is about as indecorous as breaking-wind or confessing to voting for Trump, or Brexit, and should be put away for the duration. Your business dealings and subsequent destruction of the environment, or economy will just have to wait till after the dessert.

But of course all this is an idealization, as at the age of fifty-six I can’t eat or drink anything like the quantities or frequency that I would like to. My girlfriend buys me slim-fit shirts and skinny jeans, so I have to either exercise some restraint, or buy a new wardrobe.

Everyday starts with an elaborate breakfast. No matter where we are, this meal is sacrosanct. At home in Costa Rica, it’s a freshly juiced carrot, red pepper and celery drink. Five or six fruits with granola and Greek yoghurt. A nasty concoction of liquidized tumeric, ginger, garlic, chia and flax seeds. Pretty vile, but hopefully it will ensure that even if I don’t live to be as old as Methuselah, I won’t be constantly at the doctors. A croissant from the French bakery and a couple of fried eggs. We have great coffee beans in the country, so two cappas is de rigueur before we can find the courage to start the day.

The rest of the day falls into one of two categories: one, people are coming over and it’s a bacchanal, a day of excess, gluttony and elasticated trousers, or two, no invitees and we fast and drink water. If friends are coming, I like to make fresh pasta. Really makes a difference, the commercial stuff is just that. Tastes different, cooks different and if you’ve bought some kind of ravioli with a filling of uncertain provenance, it will probably be eyelid and hoof as corporations struggle for profitability. Anyway, armed with a Kitchen Aid with pasta attachment, making rav’s or cannellonis is fun and easy. Pumpkin purée with Prosciutto, Wild Mushrooms, Caramelized Shrimps, Goats’ Cheese, a thousand different ingredients can be wrapped in pasta sheets and cooked at the moment. Two rules must apply; the pasta should be as thin as possible, and it should always be caramelized in brown butter after being cooked in boiling water.

For the last dinner for some pals, we started with Gin and Tonics and freshly squeezed Cucumber Juice along with some canapés on thinly sliced toasts. I lived in the south of France for five years and love the Pissaladière, a riotous assembly of confited sliced onions, with a touch of mustard, which acts as a base for Anchovy fillets and Black Olives. I also made Smoked Salmon with Cream Cheese and chives, and some Foie Gras that a friend had bought for my birthday. This lasts an hour and everyone is becoming relaxed, the travails of the day becoming a distant memory, and the topics of the evening are established. I realized a long time ago, that if I make an exceptional dinner, it gives me greater leverage to express my foul opinions. I lived in France for seven years, and to sit at a French table without a half dozen passionately held beliefs would have been the height of bad manners. It is no coincidence that many of the most important thinkers since the end of the Second World War are French, whilst every citoyen of a certain age claims to have been with thesoixante-huitards who brought the State to its knees.Think of modern day French politics, how visceral it is, how it is usually conducted on the streets with an air of a Fluxus performance. It is life as theater. I cut my teeth on such a formula; calibrating the right degree of piquant debate with food and wine good enough that people won’t get up offended and leave the dinner.

For the first course, I made my girlfriends classic salad of Pumpkin Tortellinis with Prosciutto, Caramelized Avocado, Asparagus Spears, Roquette Salad and a few dabs of Pesto Sauce and a couple of wafer thin slices of Parmesan. I always bake the Pumpkin in quarters with salt and pepper in the oven. Nothing else. It must be dry as possible, before being broken up with a fork and mixed with blended raw chicken breast. The last ingredient is neutral, invisible, doesn’t taste of anything, but its protein will give the Ravioli form and texture. I love making pasta as I have the kitchen to myself for a few hours and can have my classic rock playlist on full blast. Everything’s ready for the dinner. Prosciutto and Parmesan are sliced, Asparagus is peeled and cooked. Roquette leaves washed and dried. Hours later, its just about assembling the ingredients.

Really delicious and the dish was executed in less than five minutes, a consideration as you don’t want be away from the table and your drink for too long. Wine drinking has really taken off in Costa Rica and we have access to great wines from around the world. This dish was served with a Torrentes from Argentina.

For the main course, I served a new creation, Fillet of Red Snapper with Spring Rolls and Spicy Mango Puree. We were at one of the beaches recently and we had Spring Rolls in a restaurant and they were absolutely foul. The circumference of the rolls greater than the batting end of a baseball bat. Undercooked, insipid, unnecessarily nasty, and obviously made by someone who had never been to Asia, or eaten Asian food. Back in San Jose, I bought some spring roll sheets from the Chinese market and made my own filled with finely julienned carrot, cabbage and bean sprouts, with lashings of mint and coriander and then rolled them into shapes the size and length of ballpoint pen. Four per person, fried and seasoned with fish oil and sweet and sour sauce. More julienned raw vegetables, and four slices of caramelized fish. The mango purée and a forest of fresh coriander, as in my opinion it’s the tastiest herb to eat like a salad leaf. Presentation was fun, as I leaned the rolls against each other to gain height from the other julienned vegetables and arranged the fish pieces in amongst this chaotic scene, no small feat, as the chef is now four or five glasses in and struggling with his motor skills. I poured a really -I love this description- ‘muscular’ West coast Chardonnay, the type that you serve with a knife and tried to pick up the thread of Second Amendment rights, activist judges, a resurgent Russia, assertive China and whether Kimmy was too fat for the Marilyn Monroe dress and really broke the stitching.

My girlfriend always organizes the dessert, so my work is finished for the day. She’d made an excellent Tiramisu soaked in an obscene amount of Espresso coffee that kept me awake for two straight days. Our friends left at one-thirty in the morning, everyone got home safely, no one had food poisoning, and the discussions were not so bad that they’re blocking our calls. Surely qualifies as a successful dinner party?  

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