Fresh garlic from a farmer’s market can be found in Lesya’s kitchen, next to the bundles of dried herbs from her garden. I pluck an entire head to roast, for the mushroom risotto I will make for her, a smell she’ll be able to savour as she comes home, weary from a day’s teaching. I’m alone in her kitchen, at the tail end of a chilly November day, and it’s fun to unload my groceries from Ottawa’s Byward Market and start sauteeing shallots, chopping mushrooms. I’m visiting from Toronto, and this is my hostess present. It’s a way to thank her for making up a crisp, sweet smelling bed for me and letting me stay for a few days as I promote my new novel in Ottawa.
I’ll make red snapper with green sauce, to go with the risotto, and a salad of mixed greens, roasted beets and vinaigrette. Nadia, our mutual childhood friend, will arrive with Spanish wine and her sweet, slightly clownish, somewhat apologetic air. I’ll lay a plate of St Andre cheese, prosciutto, and baguette in front of them as I fuss over the menu and they help me grate cheese and lemon for the risotto. After a time we’ll sit at Lesya’s grandiose dining room table inherited from her mother, and I’ll serve the food in her exquisite pottery acquired from all over the world. We’ll talk about Afghanistan and why I think Canada shouldn’t be there, about Nadia’s important work as a dentist in a community clinic, about what it was like to write my third book, about who’s died and who’s still alive in the émigré community we grew up in, about the health of our mothers, the crazy antics of our cats, and the deep, unavoidable need to know where you’re from and who your people are.
I love making dinner for my loved ones. In my summers in Vancouver, I have an annual summer barbecue and invite my closest women friends. Cocktails and appetizers are proffered as I lay veggies on the grill, then a Greek chicken brochette and maybe yam wedges, too. Haida brings an enormous green salad, Lori a dish of zuchinni dressed with pesto. Always, there is fresh-made fruit pie, and ice cream for dessert. The delicate light of a west coast summer gilds their faces, and the wine makes arms and legs go languid. Grrrlfriend-the-cat wanders in and among various pairs of legs, hoping to score a chicken morsel or two, usually succeeding far beyond her wildest feline dreams.
I don’t have kids, never got married and never will. I’ll never know what its like to have to shop, cook, and clean up after six or seven meals a week, as my mother did. Still, I think of the meals I cook for my friends as one of life’s necessities, a duty, a privilege, a calling, an essential ritual, a love letter to the people who have helped me to live, survive, and grow.
Red Snapper with Green Sauce
I have reconstructed this sauce from memory, as I never got a chance to copy it from Lesya’s Italian Peasant Food cookbook. It’s an easy and fairly flexible recipe – any improvements to be made, let me know.
2 tspns fresh parsley, chopped
1 slice Italian bread, torn into pieces
2 tspns fresh basil, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup olive oil
juice from ½ lemon
1 tspn sugar
salt and pepper to taste
1 tspn capers
½ green pepper, chopped
4 filets red snapper
Place all ingredients except capers, pepper and snapper into blender or food processor and blend until relatively smooth: the texture should be that of a thick mayonnaise. Taste and see if it’s too tart or too sweet (although I find the tartness works well with the fish which is more on the sweet side). Add chopped pepper and capers to sauce (do not blend again) and place over filets that have been sprinkled with kosher salt and arranged on a baking pan. Place under broiler for about five minutes; serve immediately.
Serves 3 or 4.